Empowering Public Service Reform

Emmanuel Lubembe, Chair, Public Service Emerging Leaders Fellowship (PSELF) Steering Committeerector General, Public Sector Directorate Ministry of Public Administration, Slovenia

Emmanuel Lubembe spent over 30 years with Kenya’s public service, rising through the ranks to become the director for its public service reform programme, and later, the head of the Kenyan government’s public service transformation programme. Retiring from government service in 2013, he joined Deloitte & Touche as Director, Public Sector. Since 2018, he has been a private consultant on government-related policies and strategies, having worked with the World Bank and other multilateral agencies in Kenya.

The Challenge of Public Service Reform

Some of my most enjoyable work in the public service has been in the field of public service reforms. When I joined the Office of the President, which oversees reforms, Kenya had just developed a civil service reform and action plan to address deteriorating standards in service delivered to citizens. There was a certain lethargy: too much bureaucracy, and civil servants were not motivated. While public sector salaries were low, the wage bill was already very high, crowding out funding for operations, maintenance, and the actual delivery of services to the people of Kenya.

So, the government initiated a reform programme and action plan around 1994. For the next four to five years there was a focus on managing the wage bill, improving personnel management in the public service, and capacity building.

One of the main challenges was that the reform programme was not easily accepted in the public service at that time. There was no sense of ownership: it was seen as something driven from outside. The programme was also limited in scope. While it dealt with the civil service, the teaching service was not included and it kept employing more people and increasing the wage bill. In 1997–1998, the programme moved to the next phase to include all public sector institutions.

The major achievement of the earlier reforms was to raise awareness in the public sector of the need to change the way we do things. Getting demotivated public sector officers to own and embrace the reforms was not easy and took time.

In 2003, a new government came in and developed an economic recovery strategy for wealth and employment creation. To drive and implement that the government advocated the use of a Results-Based Management (RBM) approach, and the New Public Management model, which became a major initiative for driving reforms. This was also when we became more comprehensive. Every single ministry and the top levels of governmental agencies was required to have an internal reform unit.

We found a number of tools useful in supporting the reforms. One of these was performance contracts— where public agencies had to be accountable for specified results each year. Another was the rapid results initiative (RRI), where we took the results expected of each Ministry and cut them up into smaller 100-day requirements. This helped keep the agencies on track to achieve the targets set in their performance contracts. Because these tools enforced accountability from within each institution’s purview, they helped the public sector agencies own the reforms. What the central government oversaw was the coordination and capacity building.

Devolving Power And Responsibility to Local Administrations

Devolution, enacted in Kenya’s Constitution of 2010 and implemented from 2013, brought new challenges. The aim was to decentralise power, resources and authority to move closer to the people. We first had to build up the structures, systems, processes and procedures to support devolution. Then we needed to ensure there were enough qualified staff in the devolved units.

Those in the counties often lacked the requisite skills and knowledge to run what amounted to a micro government at the local level. Although skilled civil servants were seconded from the central government to the local administrations, there weren’t enough officers to cover all of Kenya’s 47 counties. We still had to recruit and build up the capacities of public servants at the county level.

Much of the early work in the counties involved capacity building and developing structures, policies, strategies, procedures and processes. The local governments often borrowed policies from the national government and customised them to their needs and goals. Kenya is still a unitary state, not a federal state. There is therefore a need to strengthen intra-governmental relations; to link the nation, the national government, and devolved administrations. The understanding is that planning and policies in the counties should be aligned with national planning and policies.

Apart from facilitating the integration of planning at the national and local levels, the national government also serves an important function in capacity building to ensure the counties can carry out their roles, responsibilities, and functions. At the central government level, the Kenya School of Government (KSG) developed a capacity-building programme to support the counties in different areas of governance, including policymaking and human resource management. The KSG also developed new programmes to cater to the training needs identified in the different counties.

I spent a lot of time helping counties to understand how to develop and make use of institutional frameworks and to strengthen their organisational design—functions that used to be carried out by the central government, but which were now the purview of the local administrations. I was also very involved in performance management—this was important to overcome the bureaucratic tendency of institutions to push paper rather than focus on results and outcomes. I have learnt that putting in place a proper performance management system, to ensure that results are produced for the people being served, is an important process.

While the national government has provided funding and resources to all 47 counties, they differ in terms of how quickly they have progressed in improving services to the people. In my opinion, this is a matter of the kind of leadership in those counties.

Citizens register for Huduma Namba, Kenya’s National Integrated Identity Management System, Nakuru Town.

Leadership Makes the Difference

In Kenya the public service commission recruits civil servants nationally, based on certain criteria and characteristics they have identified. Each of the counties has their own equivalent public service board that identifies and recruits people. Civil servants are given an appropriate grounding, within a broader values framework, and as they receive the necessary training, potential leaders are identified and groomed. This process is based not on any predetermined criteria, but on a perception that a particular person will do well.

Nevertheless, context and grounding are important traits: some people may be skilled but not grounded, and once they are promoted to higher levels, may not be able to carry out the duties and responsibilities required of them. They may lack the proper understanding of the intricacies of public service: not only technical skills, but soft skills such as diplomacy and persuasion are also required to make sure you can obtain the necessary resources to deliver the outcomes expected. Indeed, the recent engagement with the Chandler Institute of Governance is the beginning of a process to help Kenya be more systematic and deliberate in identifying potential leaders.

Delivering Results that Matter to the People

When you serve in the government, the outcome of your efforts affects the whole country. Thus, the satisfaction of achievement is greater than if you are in the private sector. Whatever you do is done for citizens, so it must be citizen-centric and results-oriented.

When talking about reforms and transformation, the fundamental and sustainable change we mean is based on citizens’ needs and aspirations. You start with citizens, define what kind of results you are looking for and ask yourself whether you have the capacity to deliver those results.

We should design service delivery around convenience to citizens, not to the agency’s convenience. This is why, in Kenya, we learnt from other countries and came up with what we call the Huduma Centres, which provide physical one-stop service centres across the country. There is also an online service portal.

Starting with your citizens, you build the capacity to deliver the service they need, and then check back with the citizen to find out whether he or she is satisfied. We have the habit of assuming what citizens want without talking to them. But the best person to tell you whether you have done well is still the citizen.

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