Macharia Gaitho: Politicising the public service a recipe for total disaster

WE’VE A GRAND COA-lition Cabinet in place. Now attention has turned to the grand coalition public service.

It will be a public service where key officers are appointed, not on qualification, experience, training or the other measures of merit, but on party affiliation.

So if you are already in the service and up in line for promotion, the place to put your application is not the Public Service Commission, but the queue at the ODM headquarters or the PNU headquarters, if they still have one.

Better still, suck up to some politician who has the inside track on available jobs and the influence to place his political allies, youth-wingers, hangers-on, relatives, musclemen and friends in the most lucrative positions.

Of course, the term ‘‘lucrative’’ here refers to our peculiar way of grading Government and State corporation jobs.

What are the functions of the job? How big is the budget one will control? How much of that money can be diverted to private pockets? How many acolytes, relatives, cheerleaders and political supporters can one employ?

How can the appointment be used to enhance one’s future political prospects? What is the scale of projects that can be diverted to one’s home area?

Yes, that is the public service we seem bent on crafting as part of the power-sharing deal, which essentially was an accord between rivals fighting for their piece of the pie.

In the process, the critical elements of good governance must be thrown out of the window so that both groups can start a new competition, which is not a race for votes, but a duel over which can loot faster and more effectively.

One would actually have thought that two competing forces sharing power would provide natural checks and balances, but where both are irredeemably corrupt, it follows they will be more intent on outdoing each other in the looting race than in checking each other.

In such a situation, the best institution to run things efficiently should be the public service. After all it is public servants who sign the cheques and are responsible for policy implementation and the day-to-may management of Government ministries, departments, corporations and statutory bodies.

But if the managers will be appointed based on their party loyalties, then we have a recipe for total disaster.

This is why we must urgently rethink any component of the power-sharing deal that mandates the 50-50 sharing of key public service jobs by the political parties.

This is not to say that we should not seek to re-shape the service to reflect the new dispensation.

AFTER ALL, MANY OF THOSE SERVing, ranging from permanent secretaries, provincial commissioners, and ambassadors to parastatal heads appointed by the Kibaki Government were selected on political and ethnic affiliation, continuing the bastardisation of the public service started by the Kenyatta regime and inherited by the Moi administration.

Two wrongs, however, do not make a right. If ODM is genuinely for reform, then it must drop the demand for its own slate of political and ethnic appointments and suggest a better way.

What is required, really, is the establishment of mechanisms that will ensure competence rather than politics as the main determinant of who gets the job. And we cannot start by simply sacking serving public servants to create room for a new set of political appointees.

There must be a process by which performance of those already in the service can be gauged and those found to be under-performers, and they will be many, allowed to leave.

All who have passed retirement age and been retained simply because they are political loyalists can also be let go immediately.

Few of them, if any, offer any special skills.

That process, properly handled, will immediately create a large number of vacancies, which can then be filled, not by political party loyalists, but by the products of a competitive recruitment process.

In the process, we can also do away with the practice of bringing in “outsiders” to take all the best jobs at astronomical pay that dwarfs the public service wages.

The practice not only demoralises career public servants who get locked out of promotion opportunities, but is also discriminatory.

In any case, it is highly doubtful that many of those so-called experts bring much in terms of skills and competence that is not already available within the service.

If there is abiding need to hire experts with specific training and expertise that is not available within the service, they can be engaged on short-term contracts.

The need to insulate the public service from politics cannot be over-emphasised. There are many countries with highly volatile revolving door politics — Japan and Italy spring to mind — where one can hardly tell who is the prime minister or which is the ruling party from one day to the next. But the public service keeps on working efficiently and keeps the country going.

As we say, politicians come and go, but the public service must remain.

Bookmark the permalink.