In our country, civil servants have traditionally had it good and developments over the years are a testament to that fact. They enjoy the sort of job security that can only be dreamt of in the modern age, year on year increments in every budget, a mind-boggling array of allowances to milk the state for and protection through the newly formed employees union (political neutrality be damned) – to name just a few.
I mean, in which other job can you get the chance to live off and exploit one country’s resources while applying for and maintaining a permanent residency (PR) status in another? All of this even before we account for the different internal machinations at the disposal of the well-connected and the politically loyal to wiggle themselves into even more lucrative positions of public office – think customs and revenue offices.
Granted that the prolonged, and currently unsuccessful, readjustment process for federalism might have taken a bit of shine off the entire setup, but it still remains a huge draw – as the recent Public Service Commission controversy shows – for aspirants of all hues and backgrounds. One of the biggest attractions is the chance for “personal development” and “foreign exposure”.
This usually comes in the form of paid scholarships and training programs offered by foreign governments – many of which are offered exclusively only to civil servants. According to a recent news report, the Chinese government alone offers close to 850 slots for civil service personnel for the academic year 2019-2020. In addition to that, there are various other programs from other nations that prioritize civil service personnel and their development.
On the surface of it, this selective largesse seems to make sense. These cultural exchanges, travel and tourism are an implement of soft power and helps to promote positive understanding of the sponsor country with the effects of higher education in particular, often being long term and influential. And what better way to help a country on its path to development than grooming and training its future decision makers?
It all seems like a win-win scenario until we look at the outcomes. Our bloated civil service is still riddled with the same old entitled mindset and entrenched archaic practices. This is coming from someone who has had the misfortune of working closely with different types of government agencies in the past. All of these years of trainings and exposure visits have done little to improve the state of our civil service – either in technical competence, service orientation or even their processes.
In many cases, the technical and administrative competencies gained through these programs are often unutilized due to lack of infrastructure, systems or processes for their implementation. And to add to all of that, appointments, transfers, promotions or any sort of movements need not necessarily be based on education, experience or know how – just political connections and cronyism. So this renders the whole objective of personal development benefitting an individual and subsequently the nation rather meaningless. On the contrary, all of these bureaucrats abroad are actually on “paid leave” putting strain on the state whilst doing nothing in return.
It’s all too easy to construe this as a case of sour grapes, seeing as most of us beyond the public sector setup would dearly love these opportunities ourselves – but that would be missing the point. There are other professions/sectors/demographics where there are leaders (all of these opportunities inevitably focus on some variation of leadership) who have not been able to develop or fulfill their potential due to a lack of opportunities.
There are leaders from disadvantaged and minority communities who, I dare say, are far more deserving, and who will, if afforded the opportunity, display infinitely more zeal in the service of their country than our bureaucrats.
In the course of making my point, I have made sweeping generalizations about the civil service but it’s certainly not a deliberate intent to tar everyone with the same brush. There are of course competent civil servants and a few I know are not only exceptional but hold a strong sense of duty towards their country. Sadly for us, those are few and far between. If this country really is to transform, then that drive surely must come from beyond the public sector where the codified rules and red tape of bureaucracy leave little room for independent or transformative thought and action. When was the last time any public official (with the exception of Kulman Ghising) did anything even remotely groundbreaking?
There is a case to be made for diversifying the beneficiaries of these opportunities but at the end of the day, sponsor countries will do what aligns with their foreign policies and what best serves their interests. But for any real change and positive impact, it’s definitely worth thinking outside the civil service box.
The writer loves traveling, writing, and good food when he is afforded an escape from the rat race. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org