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Political Priorities and Civil Servants

Political Priorities and Civil Servants thumbnail

As we draw closer to the next general elections, wherein the populace will exercise their civic rights by voting to choose political leaders that will lead the country for the next five years, I believe we should refresh our memories on the relationship between the politicians and civil servants.

The responsibilities of civil servants are not simply to the government of the day; they include responsibilities to Parliament and to the constitution as well.  However, implementing the policies of the elected government is a core civil service role.  Citing the 1991 Constitution in Sierra Leone, elected officials are confined to parliament and cannot hold ministerial positions.  Therefore, the elected President has the power to appoint any individual (mostly technocrats) from the populace to ministerial positions with the approval of parliament.  These appointees are mostly cohorts of the ruling party, whom I will call ‘allied’ politicians.  However, at the initiative of the President, he may appoint individuals from minority parties to ministerial positions to promote civil unity.

Furthermore, according to the Constitution, elected politicians are grouped into political committees with responsibilities to governed ministries headed by ministers (‘allied politicians’).  They report to parliament on the activities of the ministries.  When there is cause, a minister can be summoned before the appropriate committee or even before parliament for interrogation.

The relationship between politicians and civil servants goes to the heart of successful policy making in a democratic government.  Politicians are elected to parliament with a variety of commitments and pledges designed to attract public support.  Overnight, it becomes the responsibility of the minister and the civil servants to play a major part in turning these promises into reality or to a version of reality that somehow reflects credibility on the politicians.

In pursuing their political ambitions, politicians in their various capacities want to shine not only with the media but also in parliament in comparison with their party colleagues, and with constituents who elect them.  They also, need to command the respect and allegiance of the civil servants.  By convention, however, civil servants are excluded from helping politicians directly to fulfill their ambitions in a number of important respects.  They will, of course, ensure that any damaging interview is counteracted as much as possible through briefing of journalists, distribution of authoritative and ready-prepared materials, and other publications.  Although civil servants may draft speeches for the minister for use in parliament and other places, they cannot help the way they are delivered.  In other respects however, ministers have great deal of help from their civil servants.  In developing policy, they should command enormous resources in terms of intellectual skill, experience and share hard effort.  In delivering programmes, civil servants typically should show tact and dedication, although they may lack technical knowledge to meet all the demands placed upon them. In terms of managing the ministries/departments, the minister should have little to worry about; the permanent secretaries/department heads and staff should take care of the routine activities in the office.

The constraints that ministers find when they take up office depend not so much in the alleged bureaucracy associated with the civil service or in the overt obstruction for which civil servants are sometimes blamed.  They more often depend on other unexpected areas.  First a minister may be surprised at the extent to which he or she is forced to depend on officials at so many key points.  Ministers are literally surrounded and insulated from the outside world.  Civil servants on the other hand set up public appearances, media communications, and meetings on behalf of the government; they will offer drafts of speeches to the minister; they will brief the minister on the committees inquiring into current policies and expenditures; and they will recommend a policy to be taken in cabinet or committee discussions. Aside from the physical pressures of their role, ministers ultimately succeed through consultative skills, because they know the importance of tactical knowledge that is expected from them and the value of putting the best possible interpretation on current circumstances.  Civil servants, on the other hand, have powerful advantages, in terms of knowledge and experience, over an incoming minister, but they must never be seen to exploit these, even though ministers may not know the most elementary facts about their ministry’s work or about distribution of resources among the various functions for which they are formally responsible.  While ministers can be considered as passing angels, civil servants are the bed rocks of government operations and can afford to take a longer view of ensuring policies.

In terms of policy, the broader approach to public administration provides a viable normative basis comparable to the other models.  A policy crafted on the assumption that the responsibility of the government is to promote citizenship, public discourse, and the public interest will require a democratic civil service that invites participation from, and collaboration with citizens.  There is no doubt that dialogue among scholars, practitioners, and citizens will not only help to bridge the gap between theory and practice, but also to explore and test new possibilities for a better understanding of the operations of government.

The challenges of this broader perspective include the willingness on the part of politicians and civil servants to remain open to “daily, lived experience” and to embrace the virtues of consultation and consensus.  At the same time civil servants should not be coerced by politicians and ministers, to fulfill their political dreams. I emphasize that the civil service must be free from all political affluence.  This is not just a matter of letting go of an identity grounded in bureaucratic and governance assumptions.  It requires a willingness to cede power and control to citizens, and a commitment to consultation, dialogue, and consensus on the values that underpin the country’s indigenous social and political institutions.  The strength of this perspective is that it will enable politicians and civil servants to address problems jointly, and to know that public policy is grounded in the concrete experiences of the community.

Thus, the fulfillment of political ambitions partially coincides with the priorities that civil servants themselves may have.  Civil servants are supposed to have the welfare of the state at the root of their professional ethics.  As a result, they should feel obliged to grapple with issues that need to be resolved.

By Emmanuel S. E. Leigh, USA

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