Alice Wahome

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

| Bonface Bogita | Nation Media Group

Kenyan public sector needs radical reforms

In the recent past, Kenyans have witnessed quarrels in ministries and departments as well as in the county governments. Media reports show cases of conflicts between Cabinet Secretaries and their Principal Secretaries. There have been reports of PSs issuing statements different from their bosses, the CSs. In some parastatals, same incoherence – or worse – is evident.

Ordinary citizens also are complaining of poor public services by their counties and the national government ministries. Effectiveness in service delivery which was the hallmark of Kenya’s public service has considerably declined. Mediocrity has taken root. There is limited focus on quality and efficiency.

Why has the public service gone this route and yet Kenya’s public sector was often praised for effectiveness, efficiency, and professionalism? One study by David Leonard way back in 1991 cited Kenya’s public service as an island of success in a chaotic continent. Even as recent as before 2010, Kenya’s public sector was identifiable with effectiveness, efficiency and professionalism.

Today, however, the incoherence and poor delivery of services witnessed in some ministries and county governments is a big departure from what stood out as Kenya’s public service – ethical, effective, and focused on duty.

But this problem is not found only in Kenya. It is a problem found in several countries in Africa. In Uganda, some public servants sometimes defy their bosses because they have access to a more powerful boss – sometimes the president or his relatives. Tanzania has a similar problem. Delivery of services is poor and some defy authority because they count on informal power actors.

Public service

In South Africa, services have not only declined but decayed altogether. Overall, there are few countries where there is effective public service. These include Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Mauritius.

Kenya used to be in this group of effective and strong public bureaucracies. The Kenya Institute of Administration, the precursor of the present Kenya School of Government, trained all government officers on ethos of public service.

Public servants would be promoted on account of passing training exams, among other requirements. But it did not matter whether you knew anyone: Your passing training exams, the quality of your character and your effective performance determined your career progression. There are signs that our public sector has succumbed to the usual parochial pressures that undermine development. And undertaking reforms on management, open government, procurement framework, and performance contracting appear not to have helped.

Past public sector reforms

Kenya’s public sector exceptionalism is worth noting. Fundamental and effective reforms took place under President Mwai Kibaki’s first five years, especially from around 2004. In addition to introducing performance contracts for public institutions, the government supported the implementation of Sector Wide Approach to Planning (SWAP) in which ministries, departments and agencies interlinked and networked their plans to deliver as one.

The argument under the SWAP reform was that public sector institutions operated better when coordinated as one than in silos. Failure of one agency would trigger failure in others ministries and agencies.

Within a short period, all public sector agencies borrowed international best practices and implemented what they borrowed with a resolve to change. This led to significant changes in delivery of services. Productivity in many sectors increased as evidenced by economic recovery at the time.

But there were anti-reformers in government. Those who preferred status quo were very powerful and threatened the young pro-change individuals in the ministries and departments.

The anti-reformers, however, went quiet when it became clear that the President himself was in full support of radical change in delivery of public services.

The grand failure

This change gradually halted in the last five years of President Kibaki and during the grand coalition government that was formed following the disputed 2007 presidential election. The new coalition government brought together allies of President Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga. From then on, quarrels within the coalition government spilled over to affect the functioning of government. Public servants were undermined and prevented from carrying out their work. Both sides of the coalition came with different interests. Their greed to ‘eat’ steered the public sector away from reforms.

Three factors combined to undermine gains made. One, self-interests and ethnic considerations were prioritised in appointment to senior positions in government. Those appointed in senior posts would be loyal to their political masters rather than the ministers under whose ministries they served.

Two was the outcome of competitive politics. The ‘winner-take-all’ politics showed that when you win election, you take everything and give benefits only to your people and allies. The prize in elections therefore ‘capturing government’ to benefit allies. After winning, no one pays attention to long term objectives: the focus is on quick fixes with an eye to the next election.

Finally, there is public social norms. Voters expect their public servants to ‘milk’ the government for them. The government is the prize and therefore public servants are required to give jobs to relatives, friends and members of their ethnic group. These three combined, have reduced the importance and value of public sector reforms.

Surprisingly, public servants in charge of reforms in Kenya are very diligent individuals. Left on their own without these pressures they can rebuild a strong public sector. They are highly trained and skilled professionals. They speak the right language and have solutions to almost every challenge you can mention in public service. However, they operated in an environment where these three factor prevent them from undertaking meaningful reforms. They attend to performance contracts as an end rather than a means to an end.

Improvement of public services requires weakening these interests. Developing long term development plans with a buy-in of both the national government and the county governments and protected by law can serve as a good starting point. Vision 2030 was one good example but it did not have widespread support especially because county governments were established much later. It is high time the government revisited its bottom up economic transformation agenda alongside plans by county governments to develop another long term agenda protected by law. In the meantime, public sector can be rebooted through radical reforms. All that is required is protection of public servants from aggression of informal powerful cartels that fight reforms that are not aligned to their self-interests.

Prof Kanyinga is based at the Institute for Development Studies (IDS), University of Nairobi, [email protected], @karutikk