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Relationship between higher civil servants and their political masters (4)

THERE are concerns that the recruitment process into the Service is highly influenced by both the political and administrative leadership.

If this claim is true, the consequence is that it is not only the society that loses but also the political leaders and the administrative leaders of the Service who need the services of capable officers in order to achieve the mandate of their Ministries.

It has also been pointed out that there is a preponderance of transferees from the States at the commanding height of the Service many of whose competence may be in doubt. When the senior management of the civil service is dominated by officers other than the brightest and the best in its system, ministers and permanent secretaries cannot function at their best as the capacity of higher civil servants to support them in carrying out their functions is largely impaired.

It becomes even more unthinkable and miserable for the system if the incompetence is led at the top by the permanent secretary. Indeed, when permanent secretaries are appointed through political considerations rather than by merit and competence, the likely result is that such officers are incapable of meeting the expectations of this high office and advising impartially without fear or favour.  Their glaring incompetence may be a source of friction between a dynamic minister who wants the job done quickly and a top bureaucrat who is incapable of providing quality advice to achieve the goals of the organization. Regretfully, while ministers get fired for under performance, a virile performance management system has not yet been installed in the Civil Service, hence the worst sanction that a permanent secretary gets for underperformance is for him/her to be posted to another Ministry. This repeats the cycle of incompetence and conflicts across the public service.

Frequent transfer, postings of civil servants and cabinet changes: Frequent transfer and posting of civil servants, including permanent secretaries may also be a contributory factor to the impairment of relations between Ministers and the administrative heads of ministries. Frequent cabinet changes results in ministers not staying long enough in their positions to fully understand the dynamics of the public service.

Resultant effect

The resultant effect is that they are denied the opportunity of acquiring broader/wider experience to build enduring relationship with their Permanent Secretaries to enable them to implement the policies and programmes of the Government diligently and sustainably. These changes are, however, needed from time to time in order to revitalize the system and improve its accountability.

Other Militating Factors

At the forum of Heads of African Public Services held in Tanzania in 2005 , the following were also identified as militating factors against good relationship between political masters and higher civil servants:

(i) Various backgrounds and expectations of ministers,  some of which  are difficult to satisfy  thus resulting in frustration;

(ii) Overwhelming unofficial versus official demands, leading to strained relationships;

(iii) Non-sharing of information and failure by accounting officers to brief the Ministers leading to speculation ;

(iv) Misuse of discretionary powers and application of double standards, leading to conflict; and

(v) General lack of financial resources, affecting programme implementation.

The additional factors which are also noteworthy include:

(i) The personality and leadership styles of both actors, either as a team player, a commander, an ideologue, a manager and an agent;

(vi) Competencies that the Minister brings on the job. The following skills have been identified for good Ministerial performance:

Improving the relationship: It has been established universally that good governance begins with the establishment of quality relationship between the political and bureaucratic leaders. As stated by Richard Rose, ‘the metaphorical ship of state has one tiller but two pairs of hands that give it direction, one belonging to party politicians  in elective positions or appointed political leaders (italics mine) and the other to higher civil servants, led by Permanent Secretaries.

Compelling force for progress

The combined efforts of these two parties is a compelling force for progress as exemplified in the First Republic when the political masters and the bureaucratic leaders worked collaboratively to record the milestones in the West, East, North and later Mid _West Regions . This era has often been mentioned as the golden era  in our history.

The key to improved relationship may  lie in the following:

(i) Devising a good strategy to manage the relationship rather than living  it to chance;

(ii) Harmonizing the relationship between ministers and their aides in policy making as a strategic imperative for strengthening and enriching the public service with knowledge and competencies from other sources. This is in view of the need to harness the intellectual capacities and professional depth of highly qualified aides in the delivery of government’s policies and programmes;

(iii) Recognising the need for permanent secretaries and indeed the body of higher civil servants  (italics mine) to align themselves totally with the agenda of their ministers and other political leaders in order to give effect to the President’s priorities as reflected in ministerial responsibilities;

(iv) Appreciating the need for permanent secretaries to earn the respect of their ministers by:

“Demonstrating administrative competence;

“Speaking the truth to power;

“Deploying the best talents to handle emerging core concerns;

“Avoiding negative gossips; and

“Avoiding reinforcing negative opinions and perceptions which may tend to damage the system. Other perspectives on ways to improve the relationship on the part of the political executive are stated below :

(i) a  proper understanding of the administrative functions and recognition of its professional nature;

(ii) As little interference as possible in service matters e. g. postings, transfers, promotions;

(iii) No requests for departures from declared and approved policies to suit individual cases;

(iv) Preparedness to act ethically at all times; and

(v) Clear demonstration of competence on the job

On the part of the bureaucrats the following are essential:

(vi) A sincere and honest attempt to find out what the political head wants and make the necessary adjustment in policies and procedures to suit his/her wishes;

(vii) Readiness to fall in line with his/her political chief in all matters, unless strong grounds indicate a different course;

(viii) Willingness to act professionally and ethically at all times.

Conclusion: Political executives and higher civil servants must understand that they occupy strategic positions in Government.

Collaboration and partnership

Accordingly, their collaboration and partnership is very essential for the proper administration of the State and the achievement of strategic national priorities for advancing the cause of national development.

To this end, it is  vital for them to maintain cordial relations to enable them to continue to render service to the people for the effectuation and sustenance of the social contract that binds the governed and the governors together.

Ministers must ensure that they have good working relationship with their higher civil servants, personified in the permanent secretary, and that they secure their trust and confidence in the performance of their duties at all times with a view to harnessing their collective strengths and capacities for the delivery of public goods.

As individuals with different backgrounds, orientations and experience, they must not allow these differences to undermine the need for collaboration, complementarity and synergy of actions towards fulfilling a common purpose of adding value to the lives of the citizenry.

It is by this that they can be exemplars of service, excellence, probity and integrity in public office which are hallmarks of a worthy legacy that they are required to bequeath in office.


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