For long, Kenya’s public service was characterised by two derisive statements. First was the hanging of coats as evidence that employees were present but instead were spending the day in private business.
State secrets, popularised by the Official Secrets Act whose rationale was to make access to public information an impossibility was the second.
Any nation thrives on the quality and commitment of its public service.
By the title, these are the men and women who serve the public, ensuring that they get the services necessary to enjoy their rights as citizens. These services cover one’s life from birth to death.
Consequently, as part of Kenya’s rebirth through the 2010 Constitution, a focus on the culture of the public service was necessary. One could not reimagine Kenya without retooling its public service to ensure that it has ethos consistent with an open and democratic society that the Constitution envisaged.
The Constitution consequently dedicated a full chapter to public service. In addition to making the Public Service Commission a constitutional commission, it set standards for public service.
The key values that were identified included professional ethics, prudent use of public resources, responsiveness, impartiality, and equity.
These were subsequently captured in the Public Service (Values and Principles) Act enacted in 2015. The legal foundation for a change in attitude within the country's public service was thus laid.
The fundamental rationale for the above legal prescriptions was to ensure that service became the focus of all workers. That way, all citizens would get objective and expeditious service without going through someone else for favours, referred to as ‘knowing somebody’ in Kenyan parlance.
The development of service charter soon followed as a demonstration of the commitment of departments and agencies to provide quality service.
It was common to see statements promising a timely response. This was in response to the previous practice of files disappearing, rudeness and corruption whenever one sought service.
Ten years later, the complaints continue. Not that no change has occurred.
Various initiatives have been undertaken to help deliver the constitutional promise within the public service.
The Service Charter, inculcating a culture of results-based management and development of Strategic Plans, adoption of technology for automation, the introduction of Huduma Centres and the establishment of a Ministry of Public Service are examples of the interventions.
Fast forward to 10 years after the 2010 Constitution and the problems are as endemic as they were.
A reading of the draft report of the Building Bridges Initiative catalogues citizens’ complaints on public service. It is seen that workers continue to lord it over citizens, private interests triumph over public service and corruption is a hurdle to services.
Kenya, like every other country, is now grappling with jump-starting the economy following the debilitating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Resources are scarce calling for the prudent use of resources and a service culture.
A public service that aligns to the constitutional aspirations is a fundamental aspect of the recovery process.
The Cabinet Secretary for Health has spoken about the cartels in government, admitting the rot in his ministry.
It is, therefore, evident that the laws have not changed the culture.
The one lesson that this should teach us is that laws alone cannot change societal values. These must be inculcated through different institutions, including the family and religious systems.
In addition, continuous public awareness raising and role modelling are fundamental tools.
The culture of short-cuts and private gain over public service is rife.
Until we realise that the consequence of our actions affects the quality of our country, we will not change public service mentality through legislating a value-system.