Sierra Leone’s civil service – World Bank’s project aimed at improving productivity

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 6 June 2012:

The crucial debate initiated by the series of articles published by the Sierra Leone Telegraph on the state of Sierra Leone’s civil service, received a significant boost last week.

The World Bank announced that it has decided to provide a whopping $17 Million funding to help improve the overall performance and productivity of the country’s civil service.

The central thesis of our debate is that the Sierra Leone public sector, of which the civil service is a significant element, has become a mere shadow of what it was in the 1960s.

Whilst asking the crucial questions as to how and when it all went so badly wrong for the people of Sierra Leone, it was our hope that the debate will also focus on practical initiatives that could help bring about the seismic shift in the political and cultural paradigm, needed to change the sector.

In this the penultimate in our series of articles, we take forward the debate, by examining the $17 Million funded project, proposed by the Board of Executive Directors of the World Bank last week.

According to the Bank, the project is aimed at tackling “priority pay and performance reforms in the civil service which are needed to achieve the economic growth and poverty reduction goals of the country.”

The Sierra Leone Telegraph takes the view that, no civilised and economically progressive nation can survive or achieve growth without a first class public sector or civil service.

And this is predicated upon the assumption too, that the rule of Law, respect for human rights, due process, civil liberty and democracy are all intact, providing the bedrock foundation on which the society stands.

Should this foundation be disturbed or allowed to crumble, society will breakdown, making the task of building a professionally run civil service almost nigh impossible.

Conditions in Sierra Leone today are just slightly different to what they were thirty years ago, and that is the challenge facing the programme of public sector reforms that are currently being implemented in the country.

But will the $17 Million World Bank funded project succeed?

Announcing its funding proposal last week and contributing to the debate, the World Bank said that; “Sierra Leone suffered from severe depletion in the capacity of the civil service during the prolonged civil war. Ten years on, the need for a strong, capable and accountable civil service has only increased.”

Whilst many disagreeing with the Bank’s diagnosis, have suggested that the decline of the civil service started in 1967, as a direct result of the policy of politicisation and marginalisation implemented by the APC government, there is general consensus as to the need for a politically neutral and professionally run civil service in Sierra Leone.

Last week, the World Bank informed the Sierra Leone Telegraph that; “Over the next three years, the project will support the Government’s flagship program – ‘Improving Productivity through Management and Pay Reforms’.

It says that in particular, the $17 Million funded project will focus on three reform areas: Pay reforms, Recruitment, Staffing, Performance management, and the Accountability of the Civil Service.

It is estimated that over 200,000 people are employed in the country’s public sector, of which less than 50% are officially registered on the government’s pay-roll, with the majority accounted for or classified as ‘ghost workers’.

This massive drain in the public sector finance, whilst seen by many policy analysts as having an economic and social benefit, there is little doubt it adds to the unwieldiness of the sector, and the mammoth challenges facing those seeking its reform.

The need for a lean, down-sized, decentralised and performance-driven public sector is obvious. But what is seriously lacking is the political will and commitment needed to make bold, strategic policy decision that will make this happen.

In making the case for a leaner, smaller – but fitter public sector, it is argued that such a move will reduce inefficiencies, waste, duplication, corruption, increase productivity and above all – cut the cost of running the sector.

It is also argued by proponents of such reform agenda, that reducing the size of the public sector will provide private sector businesses with much needed qualified staff – who are currently working in the civil service, help in creating the nation’s wealth.

But those opposed to down-sizing Sierra Leone’s public sector, point out that the state acting as the largest employer, is a necessary evil for a poor country such as Sierra Leone.

They argue that the country’s private sector is too weak and lacks the capacity to absorb the hundreds of thousands of people working in the public sector, who may lose their livelihood if the size of the public sector is reduced.

Irrespective of which side of the argument one stands, what is certain is that, the rising cost of running Sierra Leone’s highly politicised, inefficient, unprofessional and unproductive public sector is unsustainable.

The policy of successive post-war governments, including the present Koroma government is to adopt a ‘step change’ – piece meal approach, rather than a holistic and more radical `root and branch’ reform strategy.

Critics argue that this ‘step change approach’ – despite the millions of dollars spent in its delivery since 2001, has made very little impact on the overall performance of the public sector.

Thousands of new jobs have been created, yet productivity and professionalism remain unachievable. The World Bank is hopeful.

It says that; “During the life of the project, between 800 – 1000 critical technical positions in the “missing middle” will be filled across government via open, competitive and merit-based procedures, thus raising the capacity of government to formulate and implement sound policies and improve service delivery.”

But what does the $17 Million project hope to achieve, where other public sector reform measures have either failed, or are struggling to succeed?

According to the World Bank; “The objective of pay reform is to improve competitiveness and internal equity in pay setting to enable the civil service to attract and retain qualified professionals.”

This objective is based on the fact that Sierra Leone’s public sector is rapidly losing qualified staff to the private sector, nor is it attractive enough to woo experienced staff from the private sector.

Critics are likely to argue that any artificial skewing of the pay rates in favour of public sector workers, which may not necessarily result in increased productivity, could add to inflationary pressures.

It may also be argued that by increasing the government’s wages bill in the short-term, questions are bound to be raised as to the government’s ability to honour such pay rises in the long-term, especially given the economic growth uncertainties and continuing decline in government revenue.

Critics have also argued that the success of previous public sector reform programmes have been seriously hampered by poor governance.

The World Bank said last week, that; “Several reforms, including the involvement of non state actors in the evaluation of the performance of ministries are aimed at strengthening transparency and social accountability.”

It says that; “The project will be implemented by the Public Sector Reform Unit, Human Resources Management Office, Public Service Commission and the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development in collaboration with various MDAs.”

But what seems unique about this new World Bank initiative is that it is hoping to implement a system of ‘payment on result’ for those managing the project, which is welcoming, as most funded projects in Sierra Leone lack such rigour.

According to the World Bank, “the project will use an innovative results-based approach that links funding to outputs and outcomes rather than to inputs.”

It says that this innovative approach will “allow government to identify the reform path and approach, and promote ‘joined-up’ and coordinated government functioning which is critical for the successful implementation of such reforms.”

$17 Million is a lot of money to invest in reforming Sierra Leone’s Civil Service at a time when most people in the country are complaining of increased poverty. But it is a necessary investment, and must be spent judiciously and transparently.

What is not clear though, is whether such spending would necessarily achieve the World Bank’s key priorities: promoting competitiveness in pay, improved performance management and accountability, and increased recruitment of middle and senior staff into the civil service.

But going back to our fundamental question, which we posed at the start of this debate two weeks ago; how did a nation that once boasted of top civil servants of the highest calibre and professionalism, suddenly fell off the performance league, only to become known as one of the worst places on earth to live, work, rest and play?

What went so horribly wrong?

Our answer is very simple: When politics, tribalism, nepotism and corruption conspire with falling standards in public life, what you have left is a recipe for the systematic destruction of all that is good in society, including the rule of Law and due process.

And when this happens, the public sector – the civil service becomes the first institution in society to lose its core values and principles upon which it was founded.

Society itself begins to fall apart, as mediocrity and shoddiness become the new gold standard by which everything else is measured.

What we also said is that a key criterion for the success of any reform agenda or programme in Sierra Leone must be the presence of political will, commitment and strong leadership.

But that, above all, a new performance-based culture is required, if Sierra Leone is to once again be held in the highest esteem it once enjoyed throughout the African continent.

World Bank Country Manager for Sierra Leone – Vijay Pillai, agrees. He says that; “The project is timely for Sierra Leone given that a reformed civil service would greatly facilitate the smooth economic transformation.”

“Success would require strong political leadership, coordinated action by key parts of government, and addressing some deep-seated challenges in the civil service. Through this project we look forward to supporting Sierra Leone’s efforts in this regard,”  – said Pillai.

The Sierra Leone Telegraph will closely monitor and follow-up on the development, implementation, results and impact of this vital World Bank funded project.

And in our final and concluding article on the civil service reform series, we will be examining the Key Performance Indicators of a well run civil service, and how such performance can be achieved.

We will also assess the role of the country’s Civil Service Training College and determine what function it should play – if any, and whether indeed it is a part of the problem of reforming the civil service.

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