The civil service is the key sector of society in a developmental State such as ours. If it is weak, incompetent and disgruntled, the ill-effects will be felt elsewhere. For this reason the reforms that have been undertaken should be resumes and concentrate on the role of the chief secretary.
The title chief secretary was used during the colonial days to refer to the official who had overall responsibility for the efficient performance of the civil service. He was answerable to the governor who was also known in the colonial office as officer administering colony x.
With the advent of Cabinet government, the title chief secretary was changed to secretary to the president and Cabinet. During the first Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government, the title chief secretary was restored. It is not clear whether these changes in titles affected the job description of the top civil servant.
Too many things have gone wrong and are going wrong in the civil service for which no single person seems responsible. There is the ubiquitous Cashgate scandal. Is there nobody whom we can confront and say where were you when these things were happening? Hefty sums of money were being paid to bogus government contractors and nobody raised an alarm!
Such irregular things as over paying members of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) and payments to ghost civil servants have been uncovered by investigative journalists. Does the civil service not have its own structures for detecting such underhand activities?
Civil servants have paid themselves allowances for conferences that never took place. Why did the paymaster issue cheques or release funds for fictitious services?
Time and time again we have heard of someone whose contract of service has abruptly been cancelled, demanding compensation for the remaining months or years and government paying two salaries for one job, one salary to the dismissed official, another salary to the one who has taken over. Why does government impose on itself extortionate contracts? Are its legal advisors or drafters of the law aware of people’s needs and what the civil service is supposed to do for them? Excessive concessions in contracts are at the expense of the public.
The civil service should operate according to principles, not haphazardly. What is the relationship between government and its employees? Is the government obliged to give them salary hikes even in conditions of economic recessions?
Though workers have a right to go on strike when their demands are not being met, endemic strikes destroy an economy. There must be a point where the government should be able to say ‘this is what is available for you, anything beyond this will be detrimental to those who need treatment in hospitals; we need spare funds to create jobs for the unemployed and to save lives of the victims of droughts’.
Government has a responsibility to all citizens not just to lobbyists and other pressure groups. Those who are inciting other employees to be uncompromising should be reminded that they are free to quit the civil service and look for better terms elsewhere.
From history, we learn that dictators arose in situations where governments were vacillating and where no progress was taking place.
The chief secretary’s job description should be updated in view of the misdeeds and incompetencies in the civil service. He must be made responsible for the efficient functioning of the entire civil service without passing the buck.
Though it is true that methods that work in corporations are not suitable for the public services, some have been tried and have proved effective. When Dame Margaret Thatcher took over the government in Britain, one of the first things she did was to inject economy and efficiency in the civil service. She brought in managers and a conglomerate to advise her, the results were satisfactory.
In the private sector, management is vigilant on effectiveness, efficiency and economy. Effectiveness means doing the things which ought to be done and leaving out trivia. Efficiency means achieving maximum results at minimum cost; economy means using a less expensive tool or transport to achieve the same results as using a more expensive one.
- The article first appeared in The Nation newspaper