By Peter Nyanzi
How President Museveni can get public institutions to work without antagonising democratic principles
After reading the article; “Looking at Museveni-Kagame frustrations” (The Independent, Issue 361) in which columnist Andrew M. Mwenda commented about how the presidents of Rwanda and Uganda are getting “increasingly frustrated” over non-performance in the public sector, I think I would agree with him but only just.
Mwenda suggested that Museveni and Kagame, thanks to pressure from democratic voices, have successfully abandoned the personalisation of the State and arbitrary rule to embrace the institutionalisation and bureaucratisation of power to implement government decisions. Consequently, civil service, as a democratic institution, has been “diluted” as cadres in the State machinery have had to give way for people who either do not share the “idealistic vision” or do not see national service as a cause to fight for.
He, therefore, saw Museveni and Kagame as “victims of their own success.” I wouldn’t concur with this assertion. I will contend that Museveni and Kagame are victims of a revolution that they have failed to complete. The point though on reforming the public sector to operate like the private sector is plausible. I will build on this suggestion to suggest three things that can be done to reduce on the presidents’ frustration over the inertia in the public sector.
First, though some might claim that building strong institutions is a successful endeavour for President Museveni, many would argue otherwise. For example, I think the public service model that Uganda is implementing leaves a lot to be desired and needs urgent reform. Decision-making is too lethargic and often erratic. While the financial, economic and social objectives are clearly outlined every year in the National Budget and State of the Nation Address, a system of follow up on the extent to which these objectives are being met within the set timelines is ineffective if not non-existent.
Every institution worth its name must have a self-correcting mechanism – a system for rewarding excellence and punishing sloppiness, non-performance, and laziness. The issue of being a ‘cadre’ or sharing the ‘original national cause’ should never arise. Similarly, following the private sector model, public performance must be assessed against well-defined Key Performance Indicators, and the institutional culture must not only be results-oriented but also customer-centric.
On this front, only the UPDF has probably had a ‘revolution’. The UPDF is very strong as an institution, thanks to President Museveni’s well-documented commitment to set up a professional army. In the UPDF, even without Museveni’s personal involvement and regardless of who one is and how close one is to the commander in chief, the system would quickly deal with a soldier who abuses his power or misuses his office.
Even the President would be helpless to defend that soldier from sanctions imposed by the system. Can that modus operandi be transferred to the civil service and other government institutions? Of course it can. But what do we have instead? A deeply-entrenched – and archaic – system that has made it very difficult to take punitive measures against incompetent civil servants. The simple process of getting a civil servant dismissed for incompetence or indiscipline is so tortuous that it could take six months to reach conclusion. Consequently, these public institutions have become breeding grounds for impunity, indiscipline, and indifference to the national cause. Similarly, the mechanism for incentivising and rewarding excellence is either non-existent or equally tedious.
Now, what motivation do public servants have to exhibit excellent performance? The private sector operates differently. Through various meticulously-written manuals, work plans, and working papers, top companies have set up a waterproof blue-print for how systems and operations must be executed. The mechanism for rewarding excellent performance is there in black and white. A stern framework for dishing out sanctions for slothfulness and indiscipline does it quickly and without fear or favour. The public sector could borrow a leaf or two.
Secondly, there is an urgent need to develop functional national evaluation mechanisms for the public sector as way of critiquing government decision-making as far as priorities are concerned. Evaluation results are useful for assessing the efficiency and effectiveness of performance and reform processes. Also, the results could test the strength of accountability mechanisms for both finances and human resources.
For example, the public performance measurement tool could be implemented by the Office of the Auditor General on one or two sampled government projects. The findings could then be disseminated at the Cabinet level so that the stakeholders can benefit from the lessons learnt.Indeed, Uganda is lucky to have well-laid out public finance management procedures and budget framework papers. But how effective they are is not known. I will give an example. The government sets out with an agenda to build ten health centres in ten sub-counties in a particular financial year.
The whole process would start with the Ministries of Health, Finance and Local Government developing a plan of how that objective would be achieved including a work plan complete with timelines. At a certain time, t, everyone should be able to know if the objective is being achieved. If it is not, then it would become a matter of going backwards to the original work plan and identifying the weak links. After identifying the bottlenecks and who was responsible for them, corrective measures can then be taken to ensure that it does not happen again.
With such a system, public officials would be held accountable for both results and procedures. That’s what’s called result-oriented management. The public sector needs it now.Thirdly, there is a need to enrich and empower the Cabinet retreat. What we have now is a group of politicians meeting behind closed doors to either exaggerate their achievements or give excuses for not achieving the targets. So, as many stakeholders as possible – permanent secretaries, undersecretaries, chief administrative officers, and LCV chairpersons should participate in the retreat.
This would help to ensure that everyone is around to give an accurate picture of what is on the ground. Also, people would be able to defend themselves in case the politicians use them as scape-goats for non-performance. Let’s make the Cabinet retreat a public function at which the media are allowed to let the public follow the proceedings. This is public money we are talking about; those entrusted with it shouldn’t shy away from being accountable to the people.
In a nutshell, let Museveni complete the revolution by instituting public sector reforms. If he doesn’t, then he should be prepared to live with the frustration of having a public sector that perennially performs below par.
The writer is a journalist