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.