UP until last week government ministers seemed to ride at anchor, unbothered by the lackadaisical approach to duty by senior and middle management civil servants.
It took a bold statement by Vice-President Joice Mujuru to bring into the pu
blic domain debate about dereliction of duty among senior officials. Mujuru said public servants should choose between serving the public or themselves.
“Some of you get into offices for a few minutes before going out to your farms leaving work unattended,” Mujuru told senior civil servants attending a workshop in the capital.
Her remarks point to an awakening in government circles that its bureaucrats are short-changing the public while drawing salaries and benefits from the taxpayer.
Dereliction of duty, government seems to have belatedly realised, weighs down heavily on national development.
Even then, this trend among senior public servants has long been evident to everybody else and has spawned a genre of petty corruption among their juniors.
Without someone senior to oversee them, junior civil servants have taken the opportunity to needle the public for bribes in return for performing tasks that they are employed to discharge.
“Civil servants are expected to lead by example but some of them are corrupt,” Mujuru said, warning that bureaucratic ineptitude gave government vicarious liability. People blamed government for sins committed by civil servants in their pursuit of self-enrichment.
Suddenly, a wave of antagonism towards work-shy civil servants by ministers appears in vogue. Government seems to have rediscovered a major retardant to public confidence.
On Monday Mashonaland East governor Ray Kaukonde raised the tempo when he warned civil servants in the province to be committed to their work. He had visited a government office complex in Marondera in the morning and found civil servants engrossed in idle chatter while the public at the National Registry offices went unattended.
Kaukonde promised to make regular visits to government offices “because lack of commitment to work is now common in the civil service, bringing the country’s productivity down.
“We urge civil servants to be serious with their work and to be accountable. Our offices are not meant for a time out for the employees to read newspapers for the whole day,” he reportedly told the civil servants.
In the past, government woefully lacked the mettle to act decisively despite being aware of public servants’ transgression.
Cracking the whip on errant bureaucrats has proved difficult as some of the positions are held by senior ruling party stalwarts appointed more on the basis of political patronage than on merit.
Government earned itself public ridicule because all it could do was batter the bureaucrats with rhetoric and endless tirades without cracking the whip.
Over time, senior civil servants have graduated to petty traders in farm produce, fruit and vegetables in their offices.
Last year the then government spin-doctor Jonathan Moyo noted with uneasiness how most civil servants were spending more time doing personal business than work.
Moyo, now independent MP for Tsholotsho, suggested that civil servants who had rushed to allocate themselves farms by virtue of their connections in government opt for early retirement. He said they should use their terminal benefits to finance agricultural activities on newly acquired land rather than pester the state with requests for loans.
More pointedly, he noted that beneficiaries of land reform had misrepresented the value of their personal assets to get land larger than they could manage.
Nothing more graphically illustrates this fraud than an instance when an agricultural research and extension land audit team accosted one beneficiary who had provided counterfeit details of his assets.
On visiting the 6 000 hectare farm, the team discovered that the beneficiary had assets nowhere near the two tractors, 100 head of cattle, 60 sheep and other livestock that he had listed to justify his proposition when applying for land.
The land reform programme appears liable to worsening truancy among senior civil servants while they attend to their personal business. They have often left juniors to grope about in the dark trying to avoid making crucial decisions in the absence of their seniors according to laid down rules and
Policy Implementation minister, Webster Shamu, also joined the chorus of government disenchantment over lack of commitment to duty by civil servants.
Last week Shamu said their attitude was retarding the implementation of government programmes.
Apparently, failure to allay public dissatisfaction has jolted government into a rude awakening that the people they have entrusted with moving the nation forward have instead exploited public goodwill for personal gain.
Shamu painted a tragicomic picture of how ineptitude among civil servants has eroded public confidence.
“A person entrusted with providing tillage units to farmers would deliver a tractor without a plough. Then take two weeks to bring a wrong-sized plough that is of no use to the farmer eager to start land preparation,” he said.
That has been the tragedy.
But more tragic regarding the emergence of moral re-awakening would be the inference that public servants redefine their role in the changed political circumstances and cease to be apolitical.
Examples abound where civil servants in rural areas have been harassed and constrained from performing their duties by ruling party supporters ignorant of government functions or on the mere allegations that they sympathised with opposition parties. For instance, ruling party supporters have closed schools and government offices over petty issues.
Government says civil servants should divest themselves of the proven Westminster system of government that emphasises separation between the political and the administrative arms of government.
“It is the role of the political leadership to formulate policies and programmes in accordance with the ruling party manifestos and decisions,” Mujuru said.
It says the Westminster model presents practical difficulties in that the civil servant is expected to implement policies and programmes of a party and government whose ideological leaning he does not share.
Yet past practices of rewarding party stalwarts with senior positions in government structures have proved disastrous.
A performance appraisal programme mooted in the 1990s when the late Eddison Zvobgo was Public Service minister has been gathering dust on government shelves. Subsequent ministers have not been able to implement the scheme to keep a tab on the work performance of public servants and they remain largely a law unto themselves.