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Reform public sector to improve services

By Ken Opalo | May 18th 2019

Management science is vastly underrated in Kenya. Consider a caricature (not far from reality) of the typical government office. It typically has one autocrat – the boss, who oversees everything, from where the tea and flasks are bought, to who gets what share of bribes. Replicated in almost every office, these autocrats serve as choke points to service delivery. Their demands that everything pass through them ensure that nothing gets done. It does not help that they are rarely in the office.

It is common knowledge that our public sector has seen better days. But so far, no one has been willing to implement the solutions that might actually work. Instead, senior public officials keep exhorting our public servants to be better people – less corrupt and more diligent.

This is like playing the guitar to a goat. While there are many intrinsically motivated public servants, it is also true that people respond to incentives. What this means is that instead of waiting for our public servants to be more moral and driven, we should be asking the specific ways in which we can align their personal interests with the needs of the wider public. In an ideal world, that would likely mean better training, high ethical standards, and proper remuneration to reduce the need for additional income through graft. But we do not live in an ideal world. What we have is a service that has been allowed to rot from the inside out. Cleaning it will take a lot longer than we would want to believe. And the piecemeal efforts at “fighting corruption” will most certainly not move the needle.

So, how might we go about reforming the public sector if we really wanted to do so. History offers some lessons. The first step should be to clearly articulate what we want from each office – each public sectorboard, each committee, and each unit within every department. There must be clear metrics to regularly evaluate performance.

Best means

Even within the same agency, these metrics ought to exist at multiple levels. Take for example the issuance of passports. The line ministry should ensure that each clerk keeps a log of the number of individuals processed and their error rate. Their superiors should be evaluated on the basis of the productivity of their juniors. Such a system could then be reinforced with performance-based bonuses and promotion. Doing all this need not take that much effort. It also beats signing useless performance contracts that are never enforced.

Second, the reform effort ought to be service-oriented and not targeted at creating angels out of public workers. We should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Let us not be foolish enough to be willing to wait for the day when we shall be corruption-free before we take the necessary steps towards greater efficiency. What this means is that the reform effort ought to set clear goals and standards, and leave individual team managers enough room to devise the best means of achieving the preset goals and standards. This structural orientation should be replicated to the lowest levels of departments. Instead of the office autocrat overseeing everything, each unit and individual should be empowered to perform their role.

Recently, individuals like Fred Matiang’i and George Magoha have emerged as enforcers of efficiency in the public sector. However, we are yet to see the results of their input. I hope they are building systems, and not becoming office autocrats in their own way.

- The writer is an assistant professor at Georgetown University

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