A MINISTER in an African country that shall remain nameless was relating his experience of joining the government from the private sector at a dinner at a recent African business conference. He said the need to observe official protocol was one of the biggest challenges of transferring from an environment of informality in business to the public service.
Simply walking out of his office to speak directly to an official about an issue, rather than working through the chain of command, had thrown his ministry into panic mode, he said — so steeped were they in following procedure. In fact, protocol and procedure had, he found, become an end in themselves and adhering to them appeared to be more important than achieving an outcome. “Actually getting the job done doesn’t seem to be part of the deal.”
A recent survey conducted by the World Economic Forum among 300 of its Young Global Leaders across 70 countries, including many in Africa, found that most would like to join the public service to have the opportunity to make a difference and be part of decision making — and because of dissatisfaction with the current leadership. However, they were unwilling to do so because of their negative perceptions about public service, which included excessive bureaucracy, exposure to fraud and corruption and inadequate pay.
A further deterrent was the perception of public service being a second-rate employment option where values such as accountability, transparency, ethics and innovation were not in evidence. Many viewed the sector as a closed shop, with key appointments linked to political patronage rather than merit.
Another dinner speaker said people with ambitions to improve the performance of government often believed they could work within the system until they attained a leadership position that would allow them to effect change. But that is a pipe dream. More often than not, people get sucked into the system and become part of the status quo rather than a force for change. Or they leave. It is difficult for individuals to change the rules of the public service game and that is why mediocrity and process trump innovation and vision.
Young and talented leaders who may aspire to public service are taking their skills to the private sector rather than fighting for influence and change in government systems dominated by party political agendas and patronage.
Is this an unchangeable reality that we have to live with? Or could the slow but steady improvement of political leadership in Africa mean that, at some point, the bureaucratic system will begin to improve? African governments are facing a new world that is driven by technology and increasing access to information through the internet. Social media and blogging have become ways for citizens to examine and criticise inefficient and corrupt governments and to find information that will ultimately allow them to make more informed choices at the ballot box.
More than ever, Africa needs a new kind of leadership both to build on the gains of improving governance and to drag the spoilers, of whom there are so many, into a new era. A reformed and vibrant public sector might even lure skilled Africans back to the continent. But they will not give up prosperous lives abroad to enter a system that stifles innovation and new ideas.
Talk of political change tends to focus on a change of president, minister or official. The whole system of government, including the public service, must be reviewed if Africa is to position itself for a more successful future.
As bureaucracies deal with public money, some rigorous order and checks and balances are necessary. But some elements of private- sector models could be introduced to make the public service more dynamic and results-orientated. Already, new partnerships between business and states have allowed some fresh air to blow through the corridors of power.
Changing entrenched mindsets and attitudes through the chain of governance is a long process but it needs to start somewhere. If Africans do not start now putting measures in place to foster a new generation of leaders in governance structures, leaders that have change and innovation rather than patronage and process as core drivers, in 50 years’ time Africa will be little changed from what it is today.