By John A. Akec
|Konyo Konyo Market- Juba- South Sudan- Copy Right JA Akec 2017|
A View from Periphery
A diplomat I met at a function in Juba recently confided that the challenge posed by current economic crisis to the stability of South Sudan far outweighs the threats posed by armed non-state actors. To overcome these challenges, he proposed that the government moves speedily to appoint competent civil servants and technocrats in key positions at government institutions to lead the reforms. That the government spells out a strategy for turning the economy around, follows transparency in reporting on revenues and spending, and eliminates the leakages of funds through misappropriation. That it should also consider incorporating in its action plans the technical advice of the IMF and World Bank on economic reforms. These measures will help to restore confidence in government’s commitment to reforms. That done with honesty and commitment, he believes the government will find willing development partners to contribute financial resources to help in implementation of the economic recovery plan. Failing that, the diplomat fears, South Sudan might have to brace for more political and social upheavals on the road ahead. And I could not agree more with these candid observations. And here are my reasons for agreeing.
What is the Matter with Our Civil Service?
Right from its inception in 2005, the Government of South Sudan has never had the kind of bureaucracy and the caliber of civil servants capable of developing policies and plans which it could translate into executable projects to realise national developmental goals. There are competent civil servants in our public sector but they only form a small minority. This was because political patronage and politics of accommodation, as opposed to merit, dominated appointments of undersecretaries, directorships of government departments, independent commissions, county commissioners, and payam administrators. That result has been the gross mismanagement of public finances, impoverishment of the country, and subsequently the onset of political crisis and civil war in 2013.
Because of inability of our civil servants who run our public sector to conceive and execute development plans, all major cities including the capital Juba lack electricity from grid as well as other essential utilities such as running water, sewage system, public transit, and broadband internet connectivity of the sort enjoyed by our East African neighbours, among others. As a country, we are yet to establish credible health system capable of preventing death from many common treatable illnesses. Our public universities are underfunded and ill equipped to assist the nation in development of its human capital. No investment has occurred in technical and vocational training (TVET) system that can equip our youth with practical skills our economy needs to grow and diversify. What is more, financial markets necessary for moblising savings for business investment, physical capital accumulation, and access to credit by businesses and consumers have remained unregulated and underdeveloped. Land property rights that protect individuals and investors are not entrenched in our legal system. And above all, our nation is yet to establish efficient tax administration for revenue mobilisation, and a functioning pension fund to look after retiring public sector employees.
This state of affairs is in the main a by-product of ineffective public service that has excelled in extracting value for private gains as opposed to adding value for the common good; and thus, draining the country of its scarce resources. Left unchecked, our civil service far from being the bulwark of state-building, will remain the albatross on nation’s neck, and the Achilles heel that undermines our progress towards prosperity. And with the passing of time, an incapable civil service will pose existential threat to the South Sudanese state that we all cherish to thrive and prosper.
That is not to lay all the blame for the current economic and political stagnation at our civil service’s door. However, it cannot be emphasised strongly enough that without credible government bureaucracy in place that is run by competent civil servants, our government will struggle for a long time to come to deliver on promised prosperity; and the ongoing efforts to turn the economy around will hardly bear fruits.
And to be credible, one must acknowledge that the responsibility for instituting competent and effective institutions of governance ultimately lies with the political authority of our country; especially the office of the President, his deputies, advisors, and his cabinet ministers; as well as the states governors and their ministers. And without their buy-in and commitment, there can be no hope for reform of our civil service, and consequently there will be no hope for economic recovery anytime soon.
Fixing the Problem: Management Sciences and Ethics to the Rescue
So what sort of civil service is competent enough to deliver on its mandate? The reader is bound to wonder. It is a sensible question to pose, although not too hard to address if there is political will. Anyone taking top civil service position must have proven expertise in the subject matter of the department or ministry they are leading. He or she must also have solid grasp of management sciences and public administration, as well as ICT and communications skills, analytical and financial skills, knowledge of project management, ability to monitor and evaluate projects and write excellent reports. A civil servant must have good appreciation of law in regards to the mandate of his or her department. He or she should be able to see the bigger picture, and can negotiate complex agreements. The civil servant worth his or her salt should be able to think strategically and lead by objective in order translate societal aspirations, as expressed by the government’s vision, into concrete realities on the ground. And above all, he or she must be ethical with impeccable integrity, and be of good moral character; to count but a few of essential attributes of a competent civil servant.
In India, for example, the brightest young graduates dream to land jobs as government’s civil servants (being one of the most coveted, respected, secure, and rewarded vacations in that great country). And the brightest Indian often live their dream by excelling in written selection tests, tough interview regimes, and surviving fierce competition against peers. In Britain, recruitment into civil service is through highly competitive written exams, with very few openings every year. Even young John Maynard Keynes with a BA first class in mathematics from Cambridge could not make it first time into a UK treasury job, as he was beaten by his Cambridge classmate. Keynes had to contend with alternative employment as a lowly statistics clerk in East India Company, before quitting to embark on building his illustrious academic career that later turned him into a world renown economist, with a school of thought after his name.
In their book Reinventing Government: How Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector [in America], David Osborne and Ted Gaebler tells how American cities were once run like personal fiefdoms by mayors who ditched out favors and jobs to immigrant leaders in exchange for securing immigrants bloc votes as well as diverting public funds for personal gains. However, starting from 1890s and for three decades that followed, the American statesmen such as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Louis Brandeis waged war on the inefficient US’s public sector and replaced it with a bureaucracy led by civil servants who were recruited through competitive process involving written exams. And once recruited, civil servants climbed the career ladder through stringent promotion system. They were also legally insulated from unnecessary outside political interference, and protected from arbitrary dismissal.
And to attract the best and the brightest, top civil servants are highly remunerated, not only to motivate them but that none should be in want least they be tempted to misappropriate public funds. This puts a high cost to their prestigious career should anyone be found guilty of gross misconduct.
The above practice is almost the universally accepted mark of credible civil service. Short of that, one must call it something else. And something else is what describes South Sudan’s civil service. And the results are not good.
Bureaucracy Not a Panacea but a Necessary Evil in State-Building
Bureaucratic systems have been criticised for their inability to respond quickly to changing operating environments. However, bureaucracies and application of scientific management have served many countries in the West beginning with industrial revolution in 19th and 20th century, a period that saw phenomenal growth of large enterprises that were characterised by complex inter-relationships of people and machines. This forced the pioneers of scientific management such as Frederick Taylor (1856-1915) in the US to argue that well tried management techniques should be applied to solve organisational problems, as opposed to relying on personal experiences, and what Taylor described as ‘seat-of-the-pants’ judgments.
It is worth mentioning that bureaucracy as efficient way for organising a government is far from being a Western invention as one might be led to think. This is because the Chinese dynasties, beginning with Qin dynasty (221-205 BC), were run by a bureaucracy whose officials were a special elite who were versed in calligraphy and philosophy, and who were selected by competitive written exams. The Qin dynasty pioneering establishment of bureaucracy marked the beginning of imperial China and resulted in unprecedented period of uninterrupted stability that lasted for over two thousand years. There is no doubt that a key contributing factor to that stability was the competent bureaucracy that was set up by Qin dynasty.
But it was in the West where management theories and ideas on modern bureaucratic systems were developed in more systematic and scientific manner. The French industrialist, Henry Fayol (1841-1925), advanced the concept of universality of management principles and efficiency of specialization in carrying out tasks, the essence of authority and responsibility, and management hierarchy with its chains of commands. The German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) complemented Fayol’s ideas and developed key innovations that underpin modern bureaucracy, as we know it today, by proposing the design of procedures to be followed closely by an official in order to improve the administrative efficiency, while eliminating the arbitrariness that is often associated with discretionary decision-making processes.
To begin the reform of our civil service, South Sudan can start by infusing the public sector with competent civil servants who will assist in designing more efficient state bureaucracy that will encompass all levels of the government (central, state, county, and payam). This will put an end to arbitrariness in decision-making and create goal-driven institutions that are capable of translating government visions and polices into concrete realities. Once established, and with passing of time, our bureaucracy can be gradually relaxed by injection with doses of entrepreneurial spirit and flexibility which are essential for any nation to thrive in the fast-phased twenty-first century global economy. This calls for an urgent action by political authority of our country if a speedy economic recovery is to be realised.
Part 2 of this article will look at other measures that will improve the capacity of civil service, as well as the institutional designs and arrangements that need to in place in order to enhance the ability of South Sudan to weather the storm of economic crisis, and bring about a speedy economic recovery.