General elections were held in Sierra Leone on March 7, 2018 to elect the President, Parliament and local councils. The first 100 days of a new government are often considered a transition period. With the recent passing of the 100 day mark, I reflect on the role of the civil service in a government in transition. My thoughts have been shaped by a course in Governance and Administration at the University of Regina examining best practices on how an independent, objective and professional civil service can lay the basis for a smooth transition of government.
The civil service and partisanship
As the non-partisan arm of the executive government charged with implementing government policies, the civil service is expected to be professional – merit-based, independent, objective and accountable. However, a significant stressor to the operations of the civil service is “political interference” which is increasingly becoming a norm in most Sub-Saharan African states.
I subscribe to the notion that remaking the civil service in the image of a governing political party compromises its effectiveness in objectively implementing government policies. With the inevitability of transitions in democratic states, a politicized civil service is a recipe for distrust between the incoming politicians who determine the political agenda, and the civil service which is expected to execute programs in line with this agenda. Quite often, incoming politicians’ lack of trust in the civil service provides a basis for “cleaning up” or “restructuring” it.
Some may argue that the more politically leaning the civil service becomes, the greater the chances of a government meeting its objectives in a timely manner. This is erroneous. Whatever justification is put forth for politicizing the civil service, the overriding objectives of the civil service can thrive only when independence, impartiality and objectivity are maintained.
Ensuring a thriving civil service
To ensure a thriving atmosphere for civil servants and politicians to mutually understand their roles and stick to the scripts of their tasks, civil servants should embark on the following during the inception of a new government:
- Be aware of the political agenda and prioritize the objectives of the government
Most incoming governments prioritize the implementation of their key policy objectives developed during the campaign period. Thus, civil servants should be aware of the broader question – what do the incoming politicians need to achieve their objectives? To answer this question, they should be cognizant of what the campaign was (political ideology), be aware of who the incoming politicians are, and strive to help them achieve their objectives with a focus on how they CAN, and not why they CAN’T.
- Provide an objective briefing to ensure a smooth transition
Objectivity can be difficult to define in a transition phase especially if the incoming government had already lost trust in the operations of the civil service prior to their ascension to governance. However, an objective briefing to incoming politicians will ensure an understanding of where they are at and set the stage for rolling out their programs.
- Introduce politicians to bureaucratic processes
While politicians serve for a limited tenure, the civil service is permanent. Therefore, civil servants should create an enabling environment for incoming politicians to understand the mode of operations in governance. An introduction on bureaucratic processes will not only bring politicians up to speed, but it will also contribute to strengthening the “bargain” between politicians and civil servants.
Abdulai Conteh is an African Leaders of Tomorrow (ALT) scholar from Sierra Leone pursuing a Master of Public Administration degree at the University of Regina. The views expressed in this post are those of the author.
The ALT Scholarship Program is funded by the Government of Canada through Global Affairs Canada and by the Mastercard Foundation. It is managed by CBIE in partnership with the Institute of Public Administration of Canada and in collaboration with the African Association of Public Administration and Management and the Canadian Association of Programs in Public Administration.