Mr. President, the civil service won’t change – franchise the bureaucracy

The Civil Service Narrative

The establishment of the Civil Service in the then Gold Coast was necessitated by the implementation of the imperialist policies of our British colonial masters.  Upon attainment of internal self-government in 1951, through several acts and laws, the Civil Service has been made to align more and more to our developmental aspirations as an independent state. However, a review of the effectiveness, efficiency, and versatility of the bureaucratic machinery of the Public institutions shows mixed results. The dominant narrative though by key stakeholders has been the need for increased service productivity, independence and efficiency. President Akufo Addo stated in a May Day speech, ‘We have no respect for the hours set aside for work… we pray, we eat, we visit during working hours. ……. We take a week off for every funeral. And then we wonder why we are not competitive’. A historical review of speeches on May Day by successive presidents reveal the common feature for better output from the Civil Service. In most developing countries, signs of bureaucratic laziness and apathy are common in public institutions.

The Civil Service Organization as a Brain Organ

The brain as a complex learning system is likened to a complex computer or to a complex system of chemical reactions that transmit messages and initiate actions. Some management gurus like Gareth Morgan have drawn parallels with the idea that an organization as a system functions as the human brain. Coined by the MIT mathematician Norbert Weiner, Cybernetics deals with the interdisciplinary science focusing on the study of information, communication, and control. Using cybernetics, scientists across the fields of medicine, engineering, social, communications, etc. jointly work to create machines with computational and adaptive capacities of a living brain. The human brain, when our body heats up, using cybernetics, initiates action to cause sweat, and breathe heavily to initiate changes in opposite direction. The opposite is true. Likewise, a thermostat device operates on the negative feedback principle by ensuring heating when conditions are cold and cooling when conditions are hot. The underlying principle in both cases is that a system or human brains self-regulate behavior based on information exchange through negative feedback.  If organizations as systems are seen to function as the human brain does, then it should be able to use negative feedback to self-regulate. For example, if a company’s services do not meet customer satisfaction, management will brainstorm to make changes by factoring in customer concerns to adapt the service. The conditions for cybernetics is that systems must have the capacity to sense, monitor, and scan significant aspects of their environment; ability to relate this information to the operating norms that guide system behavior; detecting significant deviations from these norms; an ability to initiate corrective action when discrepancies are detected. The Brain or Organizations can then become intelligent self-regulating system that monitor changes and initiate appropriate responses.

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The malfunctioning Civil Service Organizational Brain

The pertinent question to ask is the capability of the Civil Service bureaucracy as a working brain organ to self-regulate through negative feedback. Can it become a learning organization with capacity to be as flexible, resilient, and initiate appropriate responses? To the extent that the operating norms and standards is inappropriate to deal with contemporary environmental exigencies, then the intelligence of the system breaks down and the process of negative feedback rather perpetuates an inappropriate pattern of behavior. Complex brains (i.e. learning organizations) or advanced computers have the inherent capacity to detect and correct errors in operating norms and thereby influence standards that guide operations. The challenge of the Civil Service is its inability to become a learning organization not even with a Ministry of Public Sector Reforms during President Kufour’s era. Several reform programs subsequently have yielded little.

Why is the Civil Service failing to be Learning Organization?

Highly bureaucratic organizations like the Civil Service’s fundamental organizing principles normally operate to actually obstruct the learning process by institutionalizing systems that perpetuate basic paradigms and operating norms. Two characteristic tendencies demonstrates the Civil Service organizational brain. Firstly, there are fragmented patterns of thought and action by the different hierarchical and horizontal divisions. Typically, when accessing service in a public institution you will notice how uncooperative the various departments are by focusing on subunit rather than cooperate goals. Second, is the bureaucratic accountability and the other systems for rewarding or punishing employees.  Civil servants, feeling threatened or vulnerable (due to underperformance, political patronage, incompetence, laziness, selfishness, greed, being unpatriotic, etc.) engage in ‘defensive routines’ to protect themselves and colleagues. Faced with this culture it is virtually impossible for the system brain to be self-regulatory by questioning, challenging, and changing the operating norms and assumptions.

Way Forward

I want to propose some form of ‘adaptive efficiency’ for our civil service bureaucratic establishment by ‘franchising’ the entire establishment. In a public organization that cannot self-regulate from negative feedback and where goals tend to be vague and inconsistent, there is need to redefine the reward system. In the business world franchises share in the profits of the outlets operating under a franchisor brand. Admittedly, public organizations may be geared more towards serving more important goals other than making money (e.g. Ghana Health Services, Meteorological services, etc.). However, I want to believe that most (e.g. Passport Office, Ghana Immigration Services, Ghana Highways Authority, Metro Mass Transit Company Ltd, Ghana Cocoa Board, CSIR, etc) can be adapted to operate more along the lines of business franchises. The Franchisor in this case being the government.

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Spending about 50% (GH¢14.4bn) of government revenues on public workers (over 650,000) wages, Finance Minister Ken Ofori-Atta suggests a cut in the public sector workforce as we exit the IMF program. This surely is a political, economic and developmental decision with implications. Maybe we can draw a few lessons from the China experience. According to Yuen Yuen Ang (in his book How China Escaped the Poverty Trap), the Chinese bureaucracy employs about fifty million public employees (about twice Ghana’s population) and largely operates along the lines of franchises on the back of radical reforms by leaders like Deng and Zhu Rongji.

Evaluate Civil Service Heads as CEOs

Just like in China, Heads of Government departments and agencies must have a form of ‘franchisor-franchisee’ agreement through a publicly accessible ‘evaluation scoreboard’ system with specific targets customized to functional and locality demands. These targets must be entrepreneurial in orientation with issues of client orientation, advanced management, technical innovations, productivity, profits, and income. Stating bureaucratic success unambiguously and more in economic than social terms for the department or agency franchise should then be reinforced with career, financial, and reputational rewards. Just like in traditional business franchises, remuneration and bonuses must be tied to the performance of management and staff of the franchisee (government department and agency) using criteria on the evaluation scoreboard alone.

A reoriented Civil Service Organization Brain

My submissions, for lack of space, has been general with the need for the more elaborate. However, there is potentially great merit in franchising the bureaucracy. The potential benefits include making the service independent and self-regulatory through negative feedback; gradually wean the service off huge government budget; and remove the culture of patronage among others. I conclude with a quote from Chinese local head of an agency of the government in China:

In 2010 we generated 159 million in tax revenue, ranking first in the entire county. Next year, I expect they will raise our target to 200 million. The other day I was calculating in my head that we are still 6 to 7 million short of hitting the target. My pressures are intense! All the sub districts and townships are competing hard. We have to think about creating attractive business conditions, and only then will investors consider coming to our locale’.

Can we as a nation imagine the Organizational Brain transformation if all Civil Servants thought this way. Let’s Franchise the Bureaucracy. Let’s have a public discourse at least.

Even when the tasks are rather non-economic, performance can be in numerical terms e.g. for district or regional education agencies “scale of funds dedicated to education” and “completion rate for compulsory education.”

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