Reshuffles won't fix fundamental governance gaps

President William Ruto. So far there is little evidence that he is interested in substantive delegation. [PCS]

President William Ruto recently reshuffled Principal Secretaries in several ministries. On one hand, the reshuffle showed decisive action by a president not willing to tolerate mismanagement of public funds.

On the other hand, it betrayed the president’s poor judgement as the appointing authority. It is common knowledge that our system of government operates as a spoils system.

Those in power seek not only to provide public goods and services as promised during elections, but also to line their pockets or those of their friends.

This must be what Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua meant when he spoke of “shareholders” in the administration. Our best President so far, Mwai Kibaki, was a master of balancing these dueling motivations for public service.

How did Kibaki do it? He appointed competent people in key offices, then substantively delegated to them with clear instructions on outcomes.

The operational autonomy granted to ministers ensured each one of them was incentivised to sweat the details and make sure his or her docket performed well.

It also meant that, at the cabinet level, ministers fully owned their successes as much as their failures. This is the spirit that got us the “Michuki rules.”

How is Ruto doing? So far there is little evidence that he is interested in substantive delegation.

From the cabinet to PS roles to boards of parastatals, the President does not appear driven by the need to appoint competent people to whom he can then delegate.

Notably, loyalty and competence are not mutually exclusive. There are lots of Kenya Kwanza loyalists who are competent. Therefore, the selection of questionable officials is a deliberate choice.

Under these circumstances, the only route to success is through presidential micromanagement.

However, this strategy is doomed to fail for two reasons.

First, Ruto is not omniscient. The government is too complex to be dependent on the wisdom and direction of just one man.

Second, Ruto cannot be omnipresent. If the President must sign off on everything under the sun, nothing will get done on time. Even a teetotaler workaholic only has so many hours in a day.

All this to say that Ruto needs more than a reshuffle – especially at the cabinet level. He needs a competent team that can be trusted with delegated tasks.

Surrounding oneself with incompetents and hording authority reveals weakness, not strength.

-The writer is an Associate Professor at Georgetown University