As with all Valentine Days, this year’s day was not uneventful. Covid-19 notwithstanding, a lot happened.
For fear of opening a Pandora’s Box, I will leave this at that and, while still focussing on Valentine Day, redirect our discourse elsewhere.
On Valentine Day, President Lazarus Chakwera gifted us a bouquet of roses in the form of his first serious statement of intent vis-à-vis reforming our ineffective, self-serving, and generally corrupt public dis-service, which, if truth be told, is the cause of our endemic misery.
Now, as one Kahlin Gibran noted, roses divide opinions; while optimists appreciate roses’ beauty, in the same roses, pessimists see only thorns.
It is therefore worthwhile asking what we should make of Chakwera’s rose bouquet.
If you enjoy the fragrance of a rose, suggests Isaac Hayes, you must accept the thorns which it bears.
Thus advised, let’s dig on.
In his sixth Covid-19 war speech, President Chakwera finally broached the elephant in the room: the long overdue rebooting of Malawi.
Smarting from the CovidGate induced embarrassment, this time Chakwera went beyond diagnosis (i.e. pinpointing the three evils haunting Malawians viz. a culture of allowances, mis-procurement and civil servant’s employment contracts) to ordering “a comprehensive review and overhaul” of these loopholes.
“I am therefore delegating to the Vice-President and Minister of Public Sector Reforms Right Honorable Dr Saulos Klaus Chilima, together with a special Taskforce he will form in consultation with me, to begin and prioritize a review of these three government systems and submit overhaul recommendations to my office within three months”.
The recommendations must include “legislative changes needed to protect public interests and resources” and “a civil service restructuring”.
Wary of Kahlin Gibran’s acumen as above, Chakwera acknowledged that his bouquet of roses will likely not be universally welcomed.
“This systemic review and overhaul will be resisted by those benefiting who include greedy politicians from ALL our political parties, greedy businesses and the greedy civil servants they partner with.
He thus appealed for your and my support. Since I have been waiting for this, I now roll my sleeves to make the first of my contributions.
The first good news is that with Chilima having dabbled in reforms before, he is aware that reforms are easier said than done and that saboteurs always come from within.
I therefore hope that Chilima has already solicited Chakwera’s total commitment to implementing recommendations promptly and in full.
The thing with reforms is that going halfway is as bad as not embarking on them at all. Again, playing to the gallery and flowery speeches have no place in any government implementing reforms. Action, action and more action is what effects sustained and sustainable change.
The second good news is that there is no dearth of literature explaining why reforms often fail.
For the benefit of the task force, I have added references to the points that I have summarised here.
Polidano (2001) observes that “most government reforms fail because they never get past the implementation stage at all. They are blocked outright or put into effect only in tokenistic, halfhearted fashion.” He then identifies and explores the underlying challenges, namely:
- a) the scope of reform,
- b) the role of aid donors, and
- c) the leadership of reform.
He concludes that reforms have three essential success factors:
- a) keeping the scope of change narrow,
- b) limiting donors’ role, and
- c) giving reform firm leadership while simultaneously allowing for a degree of discretion.
Wrong choices, he asserts, “often lead to the failure of reform efforts”.
Ingrams, Piotrowski and Berliner (2020) observe that another challenge comes in the form of “reconciling competing interests and values”. These competing interests, some with vested interests and others not, can derail a reform initiative and hence need to be actively and carefully managed and contained. Perhaps of interest to the task force will be the analytical framework for assessing reform challenges that these authors propose.
Since we are still donor-dependent, the task force needs to be mindful of donors’ involvement. Whaites et al. (2015) share some insights on what a typical donor representative would be focussing on.
Donors supporting reforms will strive to:
- a) avoid “overload low-capacity environments with a complex reform agenda” but prioritize getting the basics right;
- b) “be realistic about what is politically and institutionally feasible now” while scoping and laying the foundations for future reforms;
- c) innovate “to better manage risk, keep up the reform momentum and create synergies;
- d) promote the “kiss” principle, i.e. keep it simple;
- e) proactively manage inter-donor co-ordination and f) champion sustained government commitment and multi-stakeholder engagement.
These donor interests will therefore impact the reform process and the task force needs to navigate carefully around them so that, in the final analysis, Malawi wins.
Karyeija (2012) is perhaps the most relevant because he focuses exclusively on public sector reforms (PSR) that have taken place in Africa. He observes that Africa has had varying degrees of success with reforms ranging from very excellent to limited success and then failure.
He then draws ten lessons that might be relevant to our quest to repent and reform.
- a) the importance of acknowledging the importance of culture and context, especially where these “contradict the content of reform efforts”;
- b) the need for buy-in from both politicians and the civil society;
- c) patience and management of public expectations because some reforms need time;
- d) realization that incremental rollout might be best in some instances;
- e) awareness that some will want to hijack reforms for selfish reasons;
- f) having a strategy to deal with corruption which can be a hindrance;
- g) deliberating and deciding what the role of donors should be;
- h) aiming to create a credible public sector;
- i) engendering ownership by government and other stakeholders, and
- j) recognizing that reforms are neither a magic wand nor a quick fix for the many other deep-rooted problems haunting Malawi which also require urgent attention.
Plenty of food for thought for the taskforce.
My last word?
The taskforce should remember that Malawians are quickly losing patience, and hence some quick big wins are imperative.
Without showing quick wins, the sweet fragrance of Chakwera’s Valentine Day roses notwithstanding, Malawians will only see the thorns, and this will not augur well.
No, it won’t.
~ Ingrams, A., Piotrowski, S. and Berliner, D., 2020. Learning from Our Mistakes: Public Management Reform and the Hope of Open Government. Perspectives on Public Management and Governance, [online] 3(4), pp.257-272. Available at: <https://academic.oup.com/ppmg/article/3/4/257/5721733> [Accessed 25 February 2021].
~ Karyeija, G., 2012. Public Sector Reforms in Africa: What Lessons have we Learnt?. Forum for Development Studies, [online] 39(1), pp.105-124. Available at: <https://doi.org/10.1080/08039410.2011.635378> [Accessed 25 February 2021].
~ Polidano, C., 2001. Why Civil Service Reforms Fail. Public Management Review, [online] 3(3), pp.345-361. Available at: <https://doi.org/10.1080/14616670110050039> [Accessed 25 February 2021].
~ Whaites, A., Gonzales, E., Fyson, S. and Teskey, G., 2015. A governance practitioner’s notebook: Alternative Ideas and Approaches. Paris: OECD, pp.233-241.