Ideas & Debate

Re-invent Civil Service to spur solid reforms

It is time to re-invent the public service side of government. FILE PHOTO | NMG
It is time to re-invent the public service side of government. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Last week, I questioned if we would attain our “Digital Kenya” dream if our public service is “analogue”.

In quoting from the recently launched Human Resource Planning and Succession Management Strategy for the Public Service, I concluded that an ageing and costly Civil Service workforce suggests a current analogue and anti-reform reality.

Think about a public service with an average age in the mid-to-late 40s given the needs of a national population in which eight out of ten Kenyans is under 35.

Consider an average private sector workforce age in the late 20s to early 30s, with a majority comprising millennials with little experience or interest in Kenya’s democratic transition to multi-party politics and a modern, liberal constitution.

That turnover in the Public Service is high among younger people suggests that we have not quite managed to harness their youthful energy and modern skills into a force for national good in a modern global era characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA).

Indeed, we might be asking how to transform Kenya with the current machinery of government — at national and county level.

Increasingly, political leaders are ignoring the traditional Public Service in preference for outsourced skills — mostly advisers and consultants — and parallel structures.

Put differently, if you really want to get things done in government, bring in your own people, set up special units and treat the existing Public Service as deadweight loss.

Witness the special units at the Office of the Presidency. Observe the posses of advisers officially available to county governors — each can hire up to five specialist advisers outside Public Service. This is not sustainable in the long-run.

So what to do? It is probably time to re-invent the public service side of government. In a world of VUCA, our government of the future cannot afford to work under 20th-century assumptions — stability, certainty, simplicity and clarity.

As the engine of the transformative agenda, a re-invented government must be at the core of the fanciful manifestos foisted on us by our leaders.
In re-inventing government, three inter-related visions come to mind.

First, government as a value chain. Second, government as our digital identity backbone. Third, government as a platform.

That private sector in Kenya regards government as a facilitator and enabler, rather than implementer, cannot be gainsaid.

The government must not compete with the private sector, especially for money.

On the other hand, it has a responsibility to enable the economy, through investments such as infrastructure and good governance, in a way that does not overburden taxpayers.

Hence, government is not seen simply as a value chain enabler, but as an actual value chain. Think of a back office inputs underpinned by sound policy and law, plus a clear planning to results framework.

Think front office outputs around service delivery and policy execution for the benefit of Kenyans, in a way that encourages participation by, and accountability to, the public. What are core capacities needed to drive this government value chain?

Shared values and culture around transformation are the first. Efficient and effective processes, systems and technology are the second. Structures, staff and skills are the third part of this capability mix.

Government as a digital identity backbone is the second vision.

Estonia is the world’s leading example. Three years ago, Kenya was thinking bigger, through the Presidential Digital Transformation Task Force.

Envisaged was an integrated national digital identity infrastructure that linked people, companies and establishments, land and assets.

Think national digital back office for all public and, eventually, private transactions. Huduma centres and e-citizen are a great beginning, but they are not the end.

The long view nowadays is about what US writer Bill O’Reilly termed Government 2.0 or Government as a (digital) platform.

Mirroring developments in technology and the Internet, he broadly argues for a form of government as an open platform that creates space for people inside and outside government to innovate to deal with social-economic problems. The possibilities here are endless.

In short, reinvented government in Kenya that combines the analogue logic of the value chain, and the digital possibilities first as an identity backbone, then as a platform.

That is the visionary thinking we need to address our Public Service problem for the long term, using our young people.