The executive is too political for technocrats to work well

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In his article our Co-editor, Nic Cheeseman, turns his attention to the cabinet in Kenya. He argues that cabinets that provide places for technocrats can work well – as seen in the examples of South Korea and Botswana – but Uhuru Kenyatta’s cabinet is not. Although the individuals involved explain part of the problem, the problem is actually systemic.

The lure of technocracy is easy to understand. Who wouldn’t want to be governed by a well-functioning administration run by experts who can bring both experience and professional skills to the job? The value of such technical capacity is clear, especially in a country like Kenya, which has just gone through a period of profound political and legal reform. A technocratic cabinet also has some advantages over one made up of elected leaders, because MPs are often less well educated, and are particularly susceptible to pressure from their supporters or political backers to break the rules.

As a result, many Kenyans welcomed President Uhuru Kenyatta’s decision to appoint a cabinet of technocrats (apart from Charity Ngilu and Najib Balala). This cabinet marked a significant break with the past. Under the old constitution, ministers were drawn from within Parliament. This had the effect of empowering the President to control the Legislature, because by appointing MPs as ministers and assistant ministers the President could bring a large number of legislators under his sphere of influence. No one was better at manipulating the National Assembly in this way than Daniel arap Moi: towards the end of the one-party era, the former president appointed so many ministers and assistant ministers that they made up a majority of the Legislature.

Against this backdrop, Kenyatta’s approach was like a breath of fresh air. But now, less than a year into his presidency, the new cabinet has a rather different smell. Some cabinet secretaries have gone missing from the public eye for long periods. Others have found themselves in the limelight, only to make disastrous statements that have undermined their own, and the government’s, credibility. This was most obviously the case with the botched response to the Westgate terrorist attack, which called into question the performance of not only the Cabinet Secretaries for Defence and Foreign Affairs, but of the whole Cabinet who, it emerged, had been warned of the danger of a Westgate style attack on numerous occasions.

To be fair, President Kenyatta has accepted that the model is not working. Earlier this month he told the Cabinet that their honeymoon was over and that poorly performing individuals will be sacked. But when a group of people fails to perform in such a consistent manner, it is important to ask whether the problem is how hard they are trying or the system in which they are operating.

Although it may seem far-fetched, the example of how fans respond to football players and managers in the English Premier League illustrates this point well. When individual players miss chances or concede easy goals, the fans blame the player and call for him to be substituted. But when the whole team fails to perform time after time, the attitude of the fans changes. Instead of criticising individual players, they start to wonder if the problem lies with the team or with the tactics employed by the manager. If things don’t improve, they soon start calling for the manager to be sacked, assuming that a new boss will be able to inspire the players to better things.

Just like Premier League football fans, it is time for Kenyans, and for the President himself, to ask whether the problem is the individual ministers or the system they are working within and the way that it is being run. Technocracy has performed well in a number of developing countries that have achieved high economic growth by giving a privileged role to bureaucrats. South Korea is one of the most famous examples, but success stories can also be found in Africa. For example, Botswana’s effective use of its diamond deposits owes much to the ability of senior civil servants to convert resource wealth into long-term benefits.

South Korea and Botswana had two factors in common that enabled technocratic rule to work effectively. First, they set up relatively meritocratic systems for promotion within the bureaucracy. Second, they either insulated technocrats from public pressure, or provided consistent political support to enable them to plan and implement long-term development strategies. Consequently, confident and highly trained individuals were empowered to think about the broader public good, rather than what might be required to win the next election.

It is not clear that either of these conditions holds in Kenya. The Cabinet Secretaries appointed by Kenyatta were not politicians, but were they really the best Kenya has to offer? Few of those appointed actually have any experience of government and many are now in charge of policy areas that they have only worked on tangentially before.

Ultimately, however, the problem is not the individuals, but the system. ‘Technocrats’ have been appointed to a Cabinet in which they are effectively being asked to operate as politicians. Rather than insulating Cabinet Secretaries from public pressure and allowing them to focus on the long-term, they are being treated like political appointees – from the horse-trading that surrounded their appointment, to the political demands that are being placed on them on a day-to-day basis by the Jubilee leadership. The botched ‘one child, one laptop’ policy is a case in point.

President Kenyatta appears to be preparing for a Cabinet reshuffle in a bid to restore public confidence in his government. This is understandable: reshuffles are typically the first resort of presidents and prime ministers in charge of struggling governments the world over. But it will achieve little if the individuals change and the system does not.

This article was originally published in the Daily Nation on the 18th January 2014.

The Daily Nation is the largest newspaper in East Africa with a daily circulation of around 205,000.

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