CS-PS feuds reveal policy gap

Alice Wahome

Water, Sanitation and Irrigation Cabinet Secretary Alice Wahome with her Principal Secretary Kipronoh Ronoh at Sarova Panafric Nairobi on May 18.

Photo credit: Bonface Bogita | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Do we still have a clear dividing line between the powers and responsibilities of Cabinet Secretaries and Principal Secretaries?
  • Or are we dealing with a situation where oversight structures and management lines have become blurred?

What are the broader policy issues around the recent tiffs between Water and Irrigation Cabinet Secretary Alice Wahome and her principal secretary, Kiprono Rono?

The drama starts with Ms Wahome coming out to defend the chief executive of the Athi River Water Works Agency, Michael Thuita, whom Mr Rono wanted suspended for alleged graft. Then you have a flurry of letters between these two dramatis personae. The Head of Public Service wades in and supports the PS. In ethnically polarised Kenya, the episode is only interpreted in terms of politics.

Elsewhere, we are reading about tensions brewing at Sheria House between Attorney-General Justin Muturi and the Public Service Commission over the exercise of powers to hire and appoint state counsels. Clearly, there are pertinent and broad policy questions here. Is it a breakdown in the policing of the boundaries of ministerial powers and behaviour?

Do we still have a clear dividing line between powers and responsibilities of CSs and PSs? Or are we dealing with a situation where oversight structures and management lines have become blurred?

These are very pertinent issues because, in terms of continuation and stability of government, our civil service is our greatest national asset. Your civil service is the continuing safeguard that ensures that ministers and political appointees who come into government after every general election do not use the machinery of the State for personal gain.

These perennial feuds between CSs and civil servants escalated after the 2010 Constitution, which left us with a state bureaucracy where power was dispersed. Before, power was concentrated at the centre at Harambee House.

Powerful office

Ultimate power of oversight over the state bureaucracy was solely exercised by holders of the defunct powerful office of the Chief Secretary, Secretary to the Cabinet and Head of Public Service.

If you remember, former President Uhuru Kenyatta, on assuming office in 2013, left out the position of Head of Public Service in the very first structure of government he unveiled. Indeed, the structure only provided for the position of Chief of Staff.

It was until September that the position was reintroduced, with Joseph Kinyua appointed to hold both offices of Chief of Staff and Head of Public Service.

In the immediate period after the 2010 Constitution was adopted, the powers wielded by Harambee House were resented. We were talking about dismantling the provincial administration. Francis Kimemia, the erstwhile Head of Public Service, was more or less demoted to the less glamorous position of CS. 

The consequences of the power vacuum created by the new order started showing almost immediately, when Kimemia, who was still sitting at Harambee House, tried to claw back his previous powers by fighting to assume some of the overall responsibilities over ministries and departments.

There was this particular story about how Harambee House had countermanded a decision by a CS over the appointment of directors and management of the Kenya Forest Service.

Oversight and supervision

In June 2014, Mr Kimemia put out a circular instructing CSs not to gazette appointments of parastatal heads without the concurrence of Harambee House. Confusion reigned over exercise of oversight and supervision of government ministries and parastatals.

Mark you, Kenyatta’s structure of government had initially transferred most of the powers of Harambee House to the new docket of Devolution and Planning, under Anne Waiguru. For example, the responsibility of overseeing public sector reforms and monitoring performance contracts in the public sector was placed under Waiguru.

Three critical Harambee House-based oversight entities — the Inspectorate of Statutory Boards, State Corporations Advisory Committee and Efficiency Manage Unity — were also placed under her.

Why am I repeating this long boring story? First, to place the problems we face today with policing ministerial boundaries behaviour in a proper historical context. Secondly, to make the point that, by combining the ‘Head of Public Service’ function with the Office of Chief of Staff and appointing Mr Kinyua to that position in September 2013, Kenyatta had settled the issue of powers and responsibility of oversight and supervision of the civil service.

Today, we are learning new lessons on the impact of personality in the conduct of the affairs of this powerful office. Mr Kinyua was a diplomat. The new sheriff in town, Felix Koskei, is approaching his responsibility differently and wants to re-assert the powers of Harambee House as the ultimate authority over oversight of the State bureaucracy. 

Before this latest episode, we saw Mr Koskei’s hand at Kemsa. Last Thursday, he convened one of the largest gatherings of PSs, CEOs of parastatals and internal auditors ever seen to crack the whip. He has given a deadline for accounting officers to answer and close all audit queries in reports by the Auditor-General.

Let the music play and the beat go on.