Yeeeah... I'm going to need you to go ahead and come in on... Sunday, too.

I was recently having a drink with a doctor who volunteers in a hospital in Tanzania, and the conversation inevitably passed to work (after we’d exhausted more interesting topics, like the Ashes). We were swapping notes on the working environment within our respective organisations, both arms of the extended civil service operating with local management, payscales, skills and equipment. It was surprising how similar our experiences were, despite the fact that he works in direct service delivery while I am safely ensconced several removes away in the Ministry of Finance, working in a technical and policy advisory position. Most of our conversation centred on the ways in which our respective working environments could be enhanced by better use and organisation of the central resource of both: the staff. Leaving aside poor technical skills, a well understood problem, we came up with a number of other troublesome issues.

At almost all levels, many staff don’t actually spend much time on their own jobs. They have extremely high workloads, in theory at least, and are not paid commensurately. At senior and middle-management levels, many therefore seek to supplement their incomes with consultancies or external projects of some kind. This takes many forms. Doctors can do consultancies at private clinics; economists and similarly trained staff can take on research projects or short term consultancies advertised by other Government departments; and many simply have businesses or commercial concerns (such as farms) outside of work and in different fields altogether. This inevitably reduces the time they spend on what is meant to be the core stuff of their job, with knock-on effects to their effectiveness and the effectiveness of the whole organisation.

The latter point is worth unpacking a little. Of course, if individual staff members are performing below their abilities, this will lower the performance of the organisation as a whole. But when it happens to management staff, there is a more insidious result as well. Most civil services I’ve seen in Southern Africa are very hierarchical, a reflection of societies in which generational conflict has been common, and seniority in almost all spheres of life brings enormous influence. When senior staff are constantly away, or take a long time to approve or clear work or decisions taken by those lower down in the food chain, the entire process of Government slows down to a crawl. This is frustrating in an office like mine, where getting a piece of analysis or a policy proposal cleared and published can take weeks, but it’s even worse in organisations that depend on swift action, such as hospitals, health centres, police stations and the like. In such contexts, well informed and competent people will be extremely reluctant to make a decision even when the cost of delay is extremely high. Part of this is due to a fear of repercussions arising from breach of protocol, but in part it is also because for many it’s simply inconceivable to take a decision without the explicit say-so of their superiors.

This isn’t the extent of management problems either; even when management is around problems are significant. In many cases, it seems that managers are particularly bad at distributing the workload of staff, meaning that some are constantly overworked and others constantly underutilised. In both cases, coupled with poor salaries, this results in very weak motivation and sometimes commensurately poor performance. This is partly a reflection of the common failure to adequately plan for a work cycle. Most Government functions have broad predictability in that certain things need to be done on a regular basis by a certain time, while emerging issues must also be dealt with as and when they emerge. This should result in pretty clear roles for staff in meeting recurring deadlines and a protocol for dealing with ad hoc issues.

A lot of people blame this problem on a lack of management skills, but I think there is something deeper going on. We’re not talking about rocket science here: it’s simply making a basic plan for what you do and occasionally checking it, and making sure people all have some work to do. Rather, I think there’s a great degree of bureaucratic politics at work as well. It can be very profitable to be the holder of knowledge, resources and skills in an underskilled and information-poor Government. They constitute personal power in the sense that the ones who have them are difficult to sack and have a disproportionate voice in Government, and they can also be used to reproduce power in the sense that they can be used almost like patronage goods, to attract followers and build up a personal sphere of influence. Influence within Government increases the scope for both legal and illegal rent-seeking.

None of this is to attack the often fantastically committed and hard working staff who work in Governments, hospitals and schools for low pay and few benefits in developing countries. I’ve lost count of how many have impressed me with their long hours and high quality work in difficult conditions. But the fact is that these conditions are unnecessarily difficult. They can and should be improved to get the most out of people.

Some time back, I wrote a little about the general structure of bureaucracy in developing country Governments, and Lee made the very valid comment that it read like a good argument against what he called ‘Changsian industrial policy’. It can be read as such, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. While there are serious issues with the ability of civil services in much of Africa to deliver services, it’s also very important to note that in other places (some in Africa) they have overcome very similar issues. The questions we should be asking are why these weaknesses are perpetuated, and how we can resolve them.

Since I’ve begun work in development, every single one of the African countries I’ve done a project or a longer posting in has allegedly been in the process of implementing a Public Sector Management Reform process of one kind or another. These reform programmes all aim at improving the management, performance and monitoring of the civil service through training, restructuring and payroll reforms. These kinds of programmes are very popular with donors. They tend to be cheap, they address a very visible weakness of Governments (namely low capacity and poor performance in delivering standard results) and make each donor’s life easier by improving the counterparts with whom they work. Unfortunately, it’s not at all clear that any of them are having a significant effect on how well the civil service works. Instead of having poorly resourced, underperforming and inefficient bureaucracies, we are creating well-reseourced underperforming bureaucracies beset by the same issues of poor motivation, hierarchy and inefficient management.

So what is the answer? I’ve often suggested that a four point approach to reform needs to be followed, if we’re to have any success in making the civil service work better:

  • First up is the obvious: skills development and resources. Technical skills and the equipment to use them are necessary. This doesn’t need any extra explanation.
  • Secondly, salaries must be supported across the civil service. Right now, salaries are so low that most civil servants can barely afford to support a family on them. They may be high compared to the extremely low national averages, but this is a specious comparison: for the work they’re required to do, they get paid beans. This gives them the incentive to focus their attention on rent-seeking (travel, meeting allowances) and external commercial interests. Increasing salaries will reduce the necessity of this.
  • Of course, increasing salaries alone isn’t enough – if staff can hold on to their jobs while underperforming, they’ll just take a higher salary and continue rent seeking and consultancies. It needs to be coupled with a rigorous performance framework which assesses performance for rewards/benefits and makes jobs contestable. A combination of a good salary and the prospect of losing the job for underperformance should motivate improvements.
  • Finally, the structural elements of bad management must be tackled. Part of this can be handled by performance assessment and accountability, but more will depend on addressing the system of incentives available to staff: removing all allowances (or reducing them to lower levels) while increasing salaries and mandating that every information-based job be ‘shadowed’ may remove the benefits from encouraging poorly distributed knowledge and skills. Coupled with a clear set of targets and system of accountability for divisional and ministry heads, this is probably the best bet

Of course, the big elephant in the post is ‘will’. The people who would be charged with implementing this system are of course the same people with the largest vested interests in it. It requires a political lead from an elected official, or a concerted push from a range of donors with clout. Neither of these seem forthcoming, so a drip-by-drip change is probably the short- to medium-term future.

8 thoughts on “MGMT

  1. Justin

    December 7, 2010 at 2:33pm

    Good post. Your recommendations are (of course) good ones. Who could argue with higher salaries, performance assessments, and more “will.” But I wonder how realistic they are.
    I don’t know what a good alternative would look like but a decent place to start might be trying think about how existing cultural/managerial values in many African countries (hierarchy, etc.) can be incentivised to produce better results rather than trying to replace those values with Western flat management structures, performance-based pay scales, and equipment requiring technical savvy.
    In South Korea, where I have been living for the past couple years, culture-bound “Asian values” hierarchal management structures are still very much the norm. Your description of the absentee senior official fits my Korean boss quite well. And yet his organization functions quite well. I find his management style distasteful (morally repugnant) but there is no doubt that it “works” to the extent that his bureaucracy carries out its task with an efficiency that compares well with any other in a developed country.
    Managerial systems are so culture-bound and culture changes so slowly that I think we are going to frustrate ourselves if we expect foreign (Western) management best-practices to find a very receptive audience in Africa (or at least by those who “count” in Africa). Learning to work through the current system to produce better results rather than transforming it might be a tough pill to swallow ethically sometimes, but it might also produce a more efficient African bureaucracy overall.

  2. MJ

    December 7, 2010 at 5:10pm

    Hi Ranil,

    It is good to raise these sorts of issues which do not get talked about enough. I think you are also right to question just falling back on complaining about lack of management skills, a trap I think I have probably fallen into in my time. I also think Justin has a very good point. As you say, reforming developing country bureaucracy does seem something of a Herculean task. I’ve seen the local results of the civil service reform programme where I work; local officials now get annual appraisals etc but that has not led to any substantial change of management style.

    I used to be opposed to per diems / allowances, but am now rather more relaxed about them. Compared to a salary, it is much more likely that the disbursement of funds is associated with some actual work. (Although, of course, there is plenty of corruption there too.) Secondly it is a means of forcing development agencies who wish to see some service delivery contribute to the cost of providing that service without having to route money through the nightmare bureaucracy of the govt finance dept with which you must be all too familiar.

    I wish I was bright enough to have an idea as to what effective steps could be taken to improve matters, but I have none, and I share your and Justin’s skepticism that the usual set of prescriptions will have much impact any time soon.

    Best wishes, MJ

  3. Ranil Dissanayake

    December 8, 2010 at 6:28am

    Hi Justin and MJ, great comments.

    Interestingly enough, I wasn’t actually writing thinking about my ‘Western’ experience here. I worked in the UK civil service, and there saw such variation in practice and effectiveness that I wouldn’t actually recommend that system to many places. I worked with (rather than in) some departments that were so poorly run and doing such poor work, it became clear to me that the whole ‘management assessment’ thing was a farce, because there was no contestability in jobs. The worst punishment you could get for being bad at your job was not being promoted.

    I’m from Hong Kong, and have family who have worked in the civil service there for decades, and it was that structure I was thinking of much more. There, the basic deal is “we’ll pay you extremely well, but you’d better show results”. And if that means management can be largely absentee, as long as they push their staff to do the job well, and organise and distribute work appropriately, they’ll stay in post and be promoted.

    Going on to the question of culture, you’re right, we’re not going to change the culture of different countries to change the civil service efficiency. However, the problem is not the basic cultural idea, such as hierarchy, but the way in which it manifests in the working environment. Hierarchy is fine, and is a central aspect of many good organisations. What we have to do, though, is incentivise the use of power and hierarchical structures for positive ends – so instead of hoarding knowledge and skills, you distribute them; and instead of ignoring your job, you make sure it’s being done as effectively as necessary. Any extra time you have after that is your own. Analagously, I’m not a fan of set working hours – if you’ve finished what you’ve got to do for the day, go home – just keep your phone handy if someone needs you.

    So – yes. I believe we should aim at incentive structures, not culture, which is what my suggestions aim at. The problem is that there are powerful vested interests in the way the system functions now. It’s a historical accident in a way – there were points in the past where the structure could have taken a different path but didn’t. And now people have evolved mechanisms to exploit it.

    MJ – one additional point. I really disagree with the allowances structure, not from any moral point of view but because it disincentivises any attempt to create a logical workplan. Essentially, allowances are paid for travel and special work projects which pay meeting or sitting allowances. A budget department which should have a desk-based structure for producing a budget every year with just a couple of consultative meetings is now incentivised to instead treat the budget as a ‘special’ event and hold a series of workshops and retreats to do it. The fact that this makes it more expensive or lucrative for staff is not a problem for me (so would raising their salaries). The fact that it makes the budget a rushed, hectic event where everything that should have been done over a six month period is squeezed into one month – with disastrous effects on the usefulness of the budget- does bother me.

    Finally, I’m also VERY in favour of channeling support through the Government systems. Multilateral donor systems are generally even more inefficient and donors cannot keep banging on about audit and accounting and accountability and capacity therein when they constantly put money through alternative systems and thereby force Government to operate multiple parallel systems – no donor has the capacity to manage four financial systems at once and be auditing and accounting them all properly, so of course Government can’t either.

    Also, as long as donors don’t channel money through the budget, in the context of resource constraints, since a minority of development spending goes through those systems, there is little incentive to invest in them and make them better. Only by use will they improve. Donor funding is about long term change and not just short term results.

  4. MJ

    December 8, 2010 at 7:37am

    Hi Ranil,

    Maybe for allowances we should perhaps say “horses for courses”. I agree with you that incentivising budget planning through allowances is just plain crazy. For field staff in the sticks, on the other hand, it works a bit better. (Though I’ve also seen local mgmt staff consistently fail to produce quarterly reports when they’re supposed to, and am always tempted to suggest that they could have seen the need coming from about 3 month’s off.)

    With regards to channelling support, you have interpreted the term ‘development agency’ more narrowly than I intended it. NGOs, especially BINGOs, are big payers of these kind of allowances for working with field staff. I agree with you that big bilateral donors should channel their funds through govt systems wherever possible, but if, as a donor, you’ve been waiting several years for them to get it right, I can understand the temptation to take another route if you want to get anything done in the field.

    Salaries of govt staff who are partners on such bilateral aid projects normally count under the govt’s contribution; an indication that the govt also considers this issue serious enough to commit resources, and thus an indicator of sustainability. This is all pie-in-the-sky thinking, of course, but that’s how it’s generally seen.

    cheers, MJ

    ps. Good to open eyes about the British civil service too! What was it one of Gordon Brown’s private-sector-import ministers said? Something about half of civil servants being a complete waste of space.

  5. Justin

    December 8, 2010 at 8:22am

    Thanks for the response. Before I wrote my first comment I was aware of your background (Hong Kong etc.) which is part of the reason I was mildly surprised that you didn’t spend much time talking about the important role that culturally specific values play in how organizations are managed around the world. Its all very well and good to call for rigorous performance assessments but how are you going to get them to actually happen? Where is the will to do them going to come from? We shouldn’t assume that the value of our prescriptions will be self-evident to African managers nor can we ignore the fact that the original socio-political and cultural conditions from which they arose are very different to current conditions in most African bureaucracies. Divorcing any management prescriptions from their cultural birth places can’t be done. Management is an art not a science.
    Thats why understanding why absentee management practices work in Korea, but not in the US, nor apparently in Africa, is so important. Or conversely why flat management structures work in the US but not in Korea and so far not in Africa. Management practices are at Samsung are different from those at Apple which are different from those at Microsoft.
    What works at one will NOT work at the other.

  6. Justin

    December 8, 2010 at 8:37am

    Thats why tailoring our prescriptions to fit the culture rather than trying to transform the culture to meet our prescriptions is so important. What we should be asking ourselves is “Will this be attractive and effective within the cultural conditions where I want it to be implemented?” And if so why do I think that and how, very specifically, do I see that occurring?

  7. Justin

    December 8, 2010 at 8:39am

    Thats what I think is missing from your analysis. What are the detailed culturally specific reasons why your prescriptions will be attractive to your Tanzanian bosses and what is the culturally specific mechanism through which they can be implemented?

    (sorry for posting three times but for some reason my comment was triggering your spam blocker and this is the only way I could get it to post)

  8. Ranil Dissanayake

    December 8, 2010 at 10:45am

    Sorry for the posting troubles – we’re using a new spam filter because of the sheer volume we’ve been deleting recently. It’s tighter, but it seems to have eliminated the problem.

    On to your point, I do totally agree that we should be looking to work within the cultures that exist, but I do feel that at least in the civil service, issues pertaining to hierarchy aside, the issues are more to do with incentives and politics within the organisation rather than deeply rooted cultural norms towards, say, routine planning etc.

    The kind of things I’m arguing for (better salaries) are quite universal. I guess we could argue that allowances or a lack of performance assessment are cultural preferences, but I think its rather more base than that – and just about self-interest.

    That said, job security (not firing people, nepotism and the like) may well be cultural and you’re right, my proposals here don’t come up with a way of addressing that.

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