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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Reinventing robust state civil service rule and political class reigns

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Alagi Yorro Jallow

For a country to have an efficient civil service, it must have a limited number of appointed ministers. The civil service needs huge numbers of staff to provide effective services because it must implement all the policies a government formulates. If we wish to accelerate development at the country level, civil servants must be employed in large numbers. The Gambia, with a population of 1.8 million, has 15 ministerial positions, the same number as in the United States, which has a population of 350 million people.

According to the concept and principles of the civil service under a Westminster-style democracy and ‘the developmental state,’ “the political class reigns, but the civil service rules.” Under such a system, senior civil servants often earn more money than political leaders because they are the ones running the country.

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A popular African proverb states that having a large manhood does not guarantee twins. What is rather needed is competent, efficient and innovative individuals to achieve the results. The civil service determines the development plan of the country and sends it to the political leadership to be approved. In this way, it operationalizes the long-term vision of the nation usually pioneered by the political elite. In such systems, the civil service is permanent (which is why we have permanent secretaries) and politicians are temporary. This aims to facilitate smooth political transitions after elections or when ministers change ministries.

How can developed countries that have large populations function effectively with few ministers? Japan has 17 ministers, while Britain has 13. The United States has a system where a secretary is assisted by three or four undersecretaries assigned to specific areas of the department’s jurisdiction. How can the Gambia and other emerging economies emulate developed countries by assigning other duties or portfolios to competent civil servants who can manage the line departments?

Why does South Africa have fewer than 40 ministers? Spain, with a population of 46 million, has 14 ministers, Tanzania, with a population of 57 million, has 19 ministers and Japan, with a population of 128 million, nearly a GDP of $5,420 billion, has just 17 ministers. By contrast, Ghana’s 110 ministers for a population of 27 million looks strange. Senegal, with a population of 14 million, has 35 ministers/advisers and the Gambia, with a population of 1.8 million, has 15 ministers (all constitutionally required). This is unreasonable.

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In the Gambia, given that the previous government of President Yahya Jammeh was described as incompetent and inefficient, one would have thought that the current administration would operate with fewer ministers and still achieve greater results. The government must be guided by the definition of efficiency, which is the ability to do or produce something without wasting materials, time or energy, or the ability to produce something with the minimum amount of effort.

This government promised change. But this is certainly not the kind of change the people of the Gambia voted for. The Coalition did not have to promise a lean government. Nevertheless, it should aim to cut down on unnecessary statutory allocations rather than engage in the creation of unwarranted ministries and portfolios, with their bureaucracies, which come at a cost to the nation.

The cost of running those ministries, including the salaries, emoluments and other conditions of the ministers and staff is substantial. However, the problem goes beyond the huge monthly salaries resting in their bank accounts, the V8s and saloon cars, the free but well-furnished accommodation, free fuel, free cooks, free gardeners, free day and night watchmen, free drivers, free police, free clothing and entertainment allowances and all the incentives and benefits. Their allowances alone could employ more teachers and nurses. But, who cares? We are spending it all on party sympathizers, neglecting the ordinary Gambian who has no potable drinking water.

Is this the government that promised to spend as moderately as possible? Didn’t this government swear to protect the public purse? The President must be reminded of that fact. These appointments do not send the right signals to citizens, let alone the donor community. Although the President has the constitutional power to appoint as many ministers as he deems fit for the efficient running of the country, he needs to be guided by public interest and the sentiments of the citizenry. The constitution was not amended to place an upper limit on the number of ministers a president can appoint.

Some countries such as Italy have often run for months without a government. They run with the civil service. Unfortunately, the Gambia’s civil service has been politicized and is therefore weak. Appointing many ministers, however, cannot be the solution. We must rather strive to make the civil service robust, efficient, professional and, above all, independent. The private sector works efficiently with few hands but achieves monumental success. Ministerial appointments must not be used to reward campaign financiers, party loyalists and foot soldiers. It is a fallacy to think that a large government with numerous ministers is competent enough to meet the needs of the people. A government that is large enough to supply everything is also large enough to gobble up the very things it has supplied.

This is shocking and goes beyond comprehension. What is even more mindboggling is the strange portfolios being created, such as a minister of state in charge of youth and sports, a minister of state in charge of women’s affairs and the office of a senior minister (vice-president). Seriously? The seeming duplication of roles is equally worrying, where there are substantive sectoral ministers and deputies and yet ministers of state are being appointed to those same areas. For instance, there is a minister of education with deputies; however, a minister has been appointed in charge of tertiary education and a minister for basic education. There is a minister of agriculture and a minister of fisheries, while yet another minister of state has been appointed in charge of agriculture. This is unacceptable. To say this is simply “jobs for the boys” is an understatement. Nothing can justify this abnormal number of ministerial appointments.

No one can convince me that it is impossible to run the Gambia better with many fewer ministers and deputies. Far larger economies have fewer ministers or secretaries. To develop a robust and efficient public sector, we need to reduce the amount of political control in civil/public service. If fewer political “masters” are appointed, we create more autonomy for technocrats to do their work, regardless of which party is elected.

I hoped that President Adama Barrow’s government would not be stained with earlier “excesses” such as inheriting the previous government’s appointment of ministers. However, it is beginning to seem that even the most experienced politicians are unable to resist the pressure to make internal appointments. In accepting the President’s charge to be citizens not spectators, I think we need to speak truth to gain power. It should be possible to deliver better results with fewer political appointees. The more people have power, the higher is our expenditure on government and the more room there is for corruption.

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