Civil service should mix career civil servants with technocrats

The Public Service Commission recently put out adverts inviting members of the public to apply for principal secretary jobs.

The practice today is that, once interviews are done, the names of successful candidates are handed over to the President to make the actual appointments.

This is how Kenya’s civil service has, over the years, gradually degenerated into a patrimonial administration.

It is the reason the civil service bureaucracy is top-heavy with cronies of powerful political elites.

Granted, it is in line with the presidential system of government.

But in ethnically divided Kenya, appointing civil servants mainly on the basis of political patronage has served to weaken the administrative capacity and undermine our dream of a non-partisan civil service.

Today, a career civil servant who has worked for more than 20 years — having joined from university at Job Group ‘K’—has an ice cube’s chance in Hell of rising to the top position of principal secretary.

If you think I am wrong, count the number of career civil servants holding this top position.

The current practice demoralises honest and competent civil servants.

We are at a point where we must return to the project of constructing an efficient and non-partisan civil service.

In the past, the PSC and the Directorate of Personnel Management, under the Office of the President, were very powerful in terms building bureaucratic discipline in the civil service.

The two critical institutions played a key role in training civil servants but, even more importantly, maintaining meritocratic procedures for hiring and promoting staff.

In those days, the holder of the position of Head of Public Service and Secretary to the Cabinet was an efficiently functioning machine working to enforce a Weberian-type bureaucracy in the civil service and occupying the position of nerve centre of all operations.

I am not a big fan of the Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SRC).

Its existence weakens the contractual basis of hiring public servants.

In my view, determination of salaries and wages should be a matter between an employer and the employee.

Yet, we have a situation where a third party who had no role in hiring you — and is not involved in assessing your performance — pops out to claim to have the power to say what you should be paid.

Yes, the SRC is constitutional. But we need to revisit its mandate and restrict it to an advisory role.

The whole idea of an institution that sets salaries for everyone in the public service regardless of the employer is a glaring anachronism.

What is my point? It is that all the building blocks for bureaucratic discipline and a non-partisan civil service have collapsed.

Neither has the experiment of a Cabinet of technocrats delivered any remarkable results.

You have to scratch your brains to see anything that suggests that President Uhuru Kenyatta’s first Cabinet approached management of public affairs better than the previous ones that were composed of politicians.

In the past, a Cabinet minister enjoyed a very high public profile; today, some of the cabinet secretaries cannot be noticed in a crowd.

Shedding the mental baggage and practices of the past — of appointing cronies to boards of parastatals under your ministry and engaging in corrupt procurement dealings — became a big problem to the technocrats of President Kenyatta.

Mid-term, the signals were that the administration’s faith in a technocratic Cabinet was waning.

Political operative Mwangi Kiunjuri was appointed to the Cabinet to replace Anne Waiguru, who had been forced to resign over corruption at the National Youth Service.

Charles Keter — another political operative — resigned as Kericho senator to be appointed CS for Energy.

Which brings me to the question: Is a Cabinet comprising unelected technocrats parachuted into the public sector, ostensibly to inject private sector discipline, likely to be more efficient than one composed of politicians?

The jury is still out. I did not see a CS that I can compare with the late John Michuki in terms of ability to deliver results.

In terms of bold and game-changing policies, I do not see something as audacious as David Mwiraria’s decision early in that administration to reduce interest rates or when the Treasury under Uhuru Kenyatta in 2004 came up with the economic stimulus package programme.

And, why do I get this feeling that Kenya Revenue Authority demonstrated stronger capacity under Michael Waweru?

Methinks if we are to rebuild bureaucratic discipline in the civil service, we will need an optimal mix of career civil servants and technocrats from the civil service.

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