Monday, November 10, 2008

Public Service

It can be damned frustrating when everyone knows things aren’t working, and they even know why, but nothing gets done about it.

Having worked for the government in Canada, I’m familiar with the animosity, prejudices and disenfranchisement felt between the public and private sector and citizens. A common sentiment is that the government exists largely to serve its own purposes rather than the public’s, and that its offices are filled with unproductive, unmotivated staff. While I can admit that the government is guilty of the inefficiencies that are inherent to most large organisations, I have worked with more than enough dedicated hardworking public servants (in Ghana and Canada) to allow me to label this blanket statement as a misrepresentation of the truth. It is true, however, that oftentimes motivation and productivity seems to be in spite of the atmosphere that is created amidst satisfying the mandates of a powerful union, top-heavy management, and political waffling. I had accepted this work environment as part-and-parcel with the government deal, but here in Ghana as I witness the challenges that her public servants face in the decentralization process I’m learning so much more about this delicate balance between accountability and stifling bureaucracy, strong leadership and political tangents, innovation and compliance.

I’ve had plenty of conversations with public servants about the situation, but when it comes to planning for action, many of these shared opinions and ideas for change never make it to the table. I and my colleagues in the EWB Good Governance Team have heard enough stories and even witnessed the repercussions of challenging norms and pushing for change. The results are often humiliating and can even result in your being transferred all over the country because you get labelled as insubordinate and a loose-cannon by the upper echelons. There is a staunch deference to hierarchy here that coming from my Canadian culture I often find cumbersome and even debilitating. I’m not calling for a lack of respect for years of experience and wisdom, but I am validating the need for a safe-place that ideas can be shared without risking your reputation or even your job.

How do you create change in an environment that inherently resists it?

This doesn’t foster any incentive for the technocrats and bureaucrats that are intended to be the architects and implementers of development in Ghana. So how can we create an enabling environment in Ghana’s public service? And what is a western development worker’s role in this? Well leadership has a lot to do with it. We’ve seen the extreme of coups in the past, and people’s love for Flt. Lieut Rawlings aside, there are less volatile ways for bringing about change through leadership. Amongst the middle ranks of the civil service there are some positive deviants who despite the norms, decide that not only is it right to do things in a responsible way, but recognize that it’s also in their best interest.

I recently hit what felt like a brick wall after presenting to the Regional Planning and Coordinating Unit (RPCU, where I work) what I thought we could do to improve the District level planning and implementation of development programs. I seemed to be shut-down on every side because in the end our office has no power. We don’t manage a budget and we don’t manage the human resources, so we’re left with little to reinforce any change from “business-as-usual.” Ultimately we’re left only with cajoling and strongly worded recommendations in reports that don’t have to be followed up on. “What’s the point,” I was beginning to think, “if nobody has to listen to us?” Yet somehow when I sit in mid-term and annual reviews of programmes in the region I see my boss command a respect beyond his rank.

Talking about people

Where I was lamenting how we had no tools or processes to leverage our ideas and influence the district planning, I realized that I had again succumbed (to what I think is an engineer’s enduring temptation) to look at things from a systems approach rather than a people approach. When I was discussing this with my EWB coach he reminded me how laws and procedures can reinforce good ideas, but people will always find their way around them if they care to. What people won’t work around is good leadership, and if we can foster that from a regional level, and use that mechanism to create a culture of good planning, then that’s a far more effective use of time and energy than what it would take to change the system head-on.

Looking at the sustainable livelihoods framework, developed by the Institute for Development Studies, I began to see that in this context the RPCU can actually have a lot of influence, if we’re thoughtful about how we present ourselves and how we relate to the district level planners. Put bluntly, public shaming is a surprisingly effective way of getting Ghanaians to take action because their ‘social capital’ is often worth more than any of their other capitals. Of course a public shaming of everyone and all things done wrong wouldn’t be constructive, but I’ve observed my boss and other Ghanaians put criticisms in a way that doesn’t sound direct, but everyone in the room understands. What’s left is to follow-up.

Anyway you look at it this is only the beginning of something very long-term. Ghana hasn’t finished decentralizing yet, and the higher levels of government are hesitant to pass down more fiscal and managerial control. Eventually the local government should have more power to exercise the checks and balances in order to provide better services and be accountable to communities. In the mean time, change marches on toward a more hospitable environment for the stewards of Ghana’s development, through one positive deviant at a time.