Let government look like the people it serves

This week saw the announcement of Principal Secretary nominees to serve as chief bureaucrats in various ministries and departments.

The list elicited mixed reactions from Kenyans, with many pointing out the skewed ethnic composition of the list.

In many ways, the list served to reinforce Kenyans’ perception of ethnicity as the principal mode of organising our electoral politics and public affairs. Co-ethnics of the president and his deputy dominated the list.

A generous reading of the list would lead one to conclude that the president, through the public service bureaucracy, nominated officials with whom he and his deputy have a close relationship and will therefore be loyal foot soldiers in implementing their agenda.

Despite the deplorable optics, this approach to public sector appointments would nonetheless increase the odds of successful implementation of the president’s agenda – which would be a good thing. If the president and his team succeed, all Kenyans succeed.

However, most Kenyans are also old enough to have seen this show before. Presidents come to power, appoint co-ethnics to key strategic positions, and the resultant co-ethnic packing results in unimaginable theft and inefficiency due to moral hazard.

It should not surprise us that people who get senior jobs simply because of the language they happen to speak or loyalty to president (and not competence) would prioritise goals that are at variance to public interest.

Research shows Kenyans have reason to be cynical. Less diverse teams are typically less open to dissenting views and new ideas.

Furthermore, descriptive representation matters.

Bureaucrats who are socially removed from the people they serve are less likely to understand their clients’ problems, let alone be willing to empathise with them.

Both findings cast a shadow over the potential performance of the president’s list of Principal and Cabinet Secretaries. For the sake of the country, one hopes that the president’s administrative skills will enable him steer his team in the direction of high performance and not group think, ethnic exclusion, and theft.

The writer is an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University

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