When I received an invitation to attend proceedings of the Africa’s Public Service Day that took place last week at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre, my first reaction was to turn it down. I must confess that I have over the years adopted a cynical attitude towards conferences, seminars and summits.
Which is why, on learning about the Africa Public Service Week — a series of events sponsored by the African Union to focus on challenges facing public bureaucracies on the continent — my instinctive inclination was to dismiss the whole thing as yet another talking shop for the well-paid African consultants, top state officials and executives in elite non-governmental organisations.
All I could conjure up was the picture of well-fed and busy-looking, middle-aged grey-suited men shuffling between ‘working group’ sessions, taking copious notes and delivering eloquent speeches in the ‘plenary’, acting oblivious of the fact that the lofty resolutions and long communiques they would issue at the end of the day would not be legally binding to the governments.
However, as I followed the proceedings, and having read through some of the presentations, I see a great deal of value in the Africa Public Service Day celebrations. Indeed, it is not common to find a large group of well-informed and experienced individuals from the continent converging to discuss and exchange ideas on a subject that does not rank high. Issues such as the need to improve the administrative capacity of the civil service, depoliticise the bureaucratic apparatus, professionalise the civil service and evolve and build a new generation of highly trained team leaders who can drive the civil service to new heights of meritocracy and efficient service delivery are hardly articulated in government policy documents in Africa.
You rarely see avenues where experienced and knowledgeable Africans on a subject matter converge regularly to share experiences and views on how weak administrative capacity in Africa impedes economic growth. Whenever top experienced African public servants and scholars come together to discuss policy, it is often at someone else’s table — choosing from a menu presented to them by foreigners in environments where discourse is limited by terms of reference drawn by so-called donors and individuals with little knowledge on African experience and issues.
I found myself quickly reflecting on our own civil service and what seems like recent shifts in influence in key centres of power. Deputy President William Ruto may be in office, but he is not in power. The advent of the phenomenon of ‘super minister’ and the elevated position that Interior Cabinet secretary, Dr Fred Matiang’i, enjoys is yet another illustration of the new architecture.
Then there is the attempt by the bureaucracy at Harambee House — as the Office of the President is known — to claw back the power and influence that it used to command before devolution. The Interior principal secretary, Dr Karanja Kibicho, appears to enjoy a first among equals role within the shifting fault lines.
Under the old order, the permanent secretary, Secretary to the Cabinet and Head of Public Service, exercised wide-ranging powers from his Harambee House office. But with the appointment of State House-based Henry Kinyua as Chief of Staff and Head of Public Service in October 2013, the new administration had made it clear that power and influence had moved to the ‘House on the Hill’.
The return to the centre by Harambee House is one of the defining elements of the recent shifts in power.
The National Treasury is another centre that seems to be clawing back the power it lost with the new Constitution. We proclaimed the end of the imperial Treasury too early. Its greatest influence is in the delays of the Exchequer releases to counties. Indeed, county governments have been suffering crippling cash flow problems even as they wait for the National Treasury to release the money.
We had an Office of the Controller and Auditor-General. With the new Constitution, the ‘controller’ and audit roles were separated and the former given to the Controller of Budget. Yet the gatekeeper to the vault has no influence in the Exchequer releases to the counties.
The civil service bureaucracy is ripe for reform. Today, the roles of the Public Service Commission (PSC) and the Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SRC) are in open conflict.
We must go back to a professional civil service serving non-partisan interests. Pork barrel politics and politicisation of the civil service have had a corrosive impact on the administrative capacity of the state apparatus. We need to reorganise and restore the powers of the PSC.
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