I was recently having a drink with a doctor who volunteers in a hospital in Tanzania, and the conversation inevitably passed to work (after weâ€™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 donâ€™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 Iâ€™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 itâ€™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 itâ€™s simply inconceivable to take a decision without the explicit say-so of their superiors.
This isnâ€™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. Weâ€™re not talking about rocket science here: itâ€™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 thereâ€™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.