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Farce on selection of PSs cheapens office and politicises public service

 

Public Service Commission offices, Nairobi. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

The original intent of the drafters of the Constitution was to significantly de-politicise the public service. The process of selecting Principal Secretaries (PSs) was originally designed to be completed before the General Election.

In fulfillment of Article 155 of the Constitution, the Public Service Commission was expected to pre-select a pool of qualified and competent men and women from whom the president could pick his PSs from.

Competitive selection of PSs is probably the highest solemn duty and responsibility of the Commission to the Kenyan people. This is not to mean their other mandates on policy, management and administration of the public service are any lesser. In fact, it is possibly the only institution that can assure any boy or girl born in the most remote parts of the country has an equal chance like those born in privilege to serve their country in any office for as long as they merit.

Unfortunately, in 2013, the Commission set a dangerous precedent not only for itself, but also for the selection of other State Officers henceforth. Those who care to remember will be reminded of the high standards of openness, transparency and accountability subjected to the initial Cohorts of State officers into Constitutional Commissions, Independent Constitutional Offices and Senior Judicial Officers. For instance, the Judicial Service Commission has conducted its affairs in such a manner that to this date, nobody can evidentially question the officers they have recommended either as Chief Justice or judges to our courts.

That explains why the decision to reject six judges by former president Uhuru Kenyatta remained extremely unpopular and looked vindictive even to insiders. It thus became a campaign weapon for his then deputy who made it his first campaign promise delivered on day one in office. The tête-à-tête business of the PSC with the political class is traceable to its first selection of PSs in 2013. Under some very flimsy grounds, the commission re-opened applications for PSs after the winner of the March 4, 2013 presidential election was known. As if that was not enough, the commission opted for closed door interviews for the 155 candidates it shortlisted from a pool 2,088 applicants then.

This was a complete departure from the open processes for other State officers that were aired on live national TVs and radio stations. Section 47 of the Public Service Commission Act of 2017 appears to legitimise the decisions of the commission from the 2013 selection process. Having given way for political expediency, President Kenyatta bypassed the commission in the appointment of his PSs in 2017. 

Thus, the events surrounding the ongoing exercise should surprise nobody. It requires no rocket science for any person of average intelligence to notice that the commission is dancing to tunes other than those conferred to it by the Constitution. That notwithstanding, there are emerging weighty issues that warrant a healthy and candid public debate going forward.

One, why don’t we just let whoever is elected as president chose his/her PSs the same way he/she does for the Cabinet secretaries in future? Doesn’t this make more economic and emotional sense than wasting scarce public resources on a sham competitive process? Two, does the public understand the enormous responsibility vested on the PS position to demand better from the political elites? How did a whopping 9,154 people express interest for such demanding roles in government? Is it out of love to serve their motherland or it speaks of the level of unemployment even among high ranking members of society? Three, are their genuine risks with flooding the public service with political functionaries?

Among the Akamba people, one of the most sacred rights of passage was marriage. There were clear standards of decorum and bravery expected of the bridegroom before one could be granted their object of love by his in-laws. Folklore has it that one time a very eligible young man had gone to fulfill the dowry payment rights for the most adorable bride in his community. As was custom, several goats were slaughtered for the feast because he was also a descendant of a very prominent family and a potential heir to the throne of the community.

As fate would have it, a small bone slipped past his mouth and got stuck in his throat during meal time with his bride and in-laws. This threatened not only his life, but also had the potential to expose him as a weakling before his bride, in-laws and the entire community. Thinking on his feet and summoning the wit of the gods, he diplomatically excused himself to a private corner in the compound for a one-on-one conversation with the nuisance small bone. Once on a safe distance, he candidly said to the tormenting object, ‘listen to me carefully small bone, there are places for this kind of jokes, and then there are places where such jokes are abhorrent. Let off my throat small bone’!

The gods heard his cry and the small bone let off his throat. Borrowing from this folklore, it is my considered opinion that the position of principal secretary is not the place to pay political dividends for the president. This is if he means well for the nation and the hustlers who thrust him into power. There are many other opportunities to reward political loyalty, but certainly not here.

Accounting officers

The requirements for appointment of the chair, deputy chair and the other seven commissioners to the PSC convey the clear apolitical intents of the Constitution. This declares anybody who has served in an elective office or has been a candidate or served in a political party not eligible for appointment to the Commission until after two general elections have passed since they were in active politics. Should such an elected Commission nominate active politicians into the same service they preside over?

Imagine you owned a company with an annual sales turnover of Sh50 billion, has over 10,000 employees and a market of 50 million customers. What kind of man or woman would you hire as your CEO? Now, a PS is an equivalent of a group CEO of such a company. The average PS presides at between Sh50-100 billion annually. A number of them will preside over Sh300 billion annually. Safaricom’s turnover in 2022 was Sh281.1 billion for the financial year 2022.

As the designate accounting officers under Article 226 (1)(b) & (2), the PS is singularly responsible for the preparation of development plans and budgets; accounting and reporting; internal controls and systems; day-to-day management of all the assets and staff of the ministry; and coordination of CEOs of State Corporations under them. Under the Public Procurement and Asset Disposal Act of 2015, the accounting officer is the only authorised person to sign any contract of whatever value for their agency.

Weighing all this and the political power that comes with it, how do you go about the appointment of such a man or woman? What calibre of patriots should be granted such an honour to serve their country? How low is the lowest of political and moral decay in a society?