Why the public service must style up

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BY ERIC NG’ENO

The Jubilee Coalition encapsulated its entire module of campaign pledges in two tidy slogans, ‘I Believe’, and ‘Kusema na Kutenda’. The former has a solemn, fervent, liturgical quality. It rallies Kenyans to deep social and political communion. The latter bristles with a pragmatic zeal. The message was that Kenya has never been short of innovative, progressive ideas.

Rather, the lack of willingness, discipline and energy to implement commitments, pledges, policies and programmes was an endemic shortcoming of our body politic. The promise of action was enough to get the entire nation’s attention, and cultivate a profound collective expectancy.

Kenya delivered its part of the bargain by endorsing the ‘Kusema’ dimension (the pledges in the manifesto) on March 4. Ever since, they have been waiting for ‘Kutenda’ to happen, and happen dramatically. If they feel that it is not happening, it most certainly is not happening in the manner associated with the Dynamic Duo, or at all. Very uncomfortable questions are being asked, and the usual smart alecs have their irreverent repertoire of quips at hand.

All I can say is that it is a very painful time to be a ‘Jubilant’, because many of us share the disillusionment yet feel a reflexive obligation to defend the Government. We need something to work with, and need it quickly.

Look at the Huduma Centres; there’s a right miracle requiring immediate nationwide roll-out. It is digital, it is useful and it is very ‘Kutenda.’ But for every Huduma Centre, there is a litany of instances where bureaucrats have applied the hand brake on Jubilee’s executive momentum.

Everyone seems to have a grenade nowadays. Police visibility is nil. Public sector thieves are not even looking behind their shoulder before dipping their hands into the till. The civil service is as inert, complicit, anachronistic and comfortable as ever. Every straightforward initiative is steeped in endless controversy.

On the other hand, the President and his Deputy still talk the language of transformation, poverty eradication, war on corruption, Vision 2030 and double-digit economic growth with evangelistic zeal. Very few doubt their sincerity, yet at the same time, many are losing hope of it all happening under Jubilee. Why?

The constitutional Executive has an interesting duality. ‘Kusema’ happens at the top: the Presidency and Cabinet. After that, the civil service takes over and is expected to implement Executive decisions with diligence and fidelity. For this reason, ‘Kutenda’ is as much the responsibility of the Presidency as it is of the entire public service. Where ‘Kusema’ and ‘Kutenda’ are fractured through the removal of the needful conjunction ‘na’ (‘and’, ‘with’), we have -as we now do in Kenya- a strange case of Executive paraplegia. The head is on point, but the rest of the body is dysfunctional, or paralysed.

Anyone having intimate contact with the Kenyan civil service will experience the dark menacing suggestion of a ‘parallel state’. This ‘state’ is as real, yet as illegitimate as the black economy. It reposes in the machinations of several well-placed potentates in the civil service who channel Executive power to secure objectives separate and distinct from those pursued by the constitutional Executive. Often enough, these objectives do not overlap, but collide all the time. When that happens, Executive paraplegia is at its most spectacular.

The Executive is a repository of immense power -all arms of Government operate through it – but the civil service has many controls on this power: procedural, jurisdictional and budgetary restrictions to prevent excesses and malpractices. These controls also provide the clout senior civil servants need to facilitate objectives they favour, and to thwart those they don’t. “It is not in the budget. A Memo has to be drawn to the Principal Under-whatever, through So-and-So, to initiate a confusing sequence of bureaucratic rituals before a Committee, Task Force, Working Group, etc is constituted to look into the matter. Certain obscure procedures have not been followed.

A fictive audit query is holding things up. So-and-So is out of the country/ is on leave. This and that approval is pending.” The sum total of which is to stop Government in its tracks. Government is intended to be a force of good. A civil service suffused with malign possibilities is clearly antithetical to the very idea of government.

In civil service discourse, it is rare indeed to sense any consciousness of, or deference to the public interest. Public servants exist in a sanitised atmosphere, supposedly immune to outside interests.

Someone will say that controls are necessary. I agree. Still, they facilitated Goldenberg and Anglo Leasing with quite some alacrity, while frustrating the laptops and Uwezo Fund. You get my point. A civil service that has become a parallel state is dangerous. A parallel state beholden to a retinue of vested interests is even more dangerous.

Doesn’t it seem like a fantastical conspiracy theory? There was a time many rejoiced in Raila Odinga’s travails in the Grand Coalition Government. Often, he had to go public about the frustrations his office endured at the hands of powerful civil servants. He could not push the most straightforward directive without encountering a flurry of coordinated soft resistance within the civil service. To strengthen its hand, the PNU wing of the Coalition had surreptitiously enlisted the civil service as a third Coalition partner.

This necessitated granting certain decisional and operational latitudes to senior civil servants to enable them effectively molest ODM. You give them a foot, they grab the mile.

Since no major changes have been made in the civil service, the parallel state remains intact and active, right at the heart of the Jubilee administration. Their operational space, tacitly conceded in the last Presidency, is untouched. According to its thinking, the civil service is in a power-sharing arrangement with the Jubilee Government. Its implicit terms of reference are to contain and manage the Executive. This entails actively obstructing initiatives likely to realise the manifesto. And worse.

Devolution is facing systematic sabotage. Similarly the laptops Initiative. It is very doubtful that powerful civil servants are serving ‘the Government of the Day’.

In a conversation recently, a senior civil servant suggested that the President should tone down his anti-corruption rhetoric. When I asked why, he stated that it is undermining morale in the Civil Service. Ponder that!

(Ng’eno works in the Presidency)

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  • Honest Kenyan

    Well said. The civil service as-is is one of our greatest national perils

  • observer

    The Wisdom of God says that you cannot put new wine in old wine skins…..new wine Must be put in new wine skins.The civil service as currently constituted is not just old wine skin its ancient….how can the jubilee Govt expect to Kutenda anything with it?

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