Editor’s Memo: Mammoth task in Public Service reform

A PERSISTANT dilemma in modern democratic systems has been the tension surrounding the boundaries of the roles of elected politicians and professional administrators in the civil service.


Pundits of public administration are usually divided on how to deal with this problem which has more often than not blurred the profile of the civil service in many developing countries.

On the one side, there are those advocating the absolute control of government bureaucratic institutions by a neutral and professional civil service and on the other those who contend that “to the victor go the spoils”. The latter ideal calls for huge shifts in the senior civil service after a transition of power.

We do not expect this huge shift in power after the formation of the new inclusive government this week because no victor emerged strong enough to run with all the spoils after the elections last year.

The political impasse of the last 10 months has accentuated the degeneracy of the civil service to the extent that the new government is faced with not only dealing with the scourge of partisanship but apparent bureaucratic delinquency wrought by misrule.

A civil service working under a corrupt and inefficient system superintended by Zanu PF for close to three decades can only perform to those warped standards.

We have in this country today a civil service that has been shaped by the evolutionary decay of Zanu PF as a political entity. We have a civil service that has demonstrated unmitigated failure in carrying out the simple administrative tasks of issuing a birth certificate, an ID card or a passport.

That same crop of civil servants –– as long as it retains the same traits of Zanu PF politics –– cannot be trusted to implement a new political ethos that should eclipse the current state of decay around us.

Before advocating wholesale changes to the system, it is key to examine the phases that the civil service has been forced to go through in response to the changing political landscape in the country since 2000.

After President Mugabe’s humiliating defeat in the 2000 referendum, and the close poll results that year and in 2002, Zanu PF exhibited traits of administrative and structural weakness which prompted major changes in the running of the party. 

The civil service was enlisted to prop up the flailing administrative pillars of Zanu PF. There was devolution of power from the cadres of the war of liberation to fresh-faced but wickedly ambitious technocrats who set out on the task of remodelling the civil service into a caricature of Zanu PF. Political scientist Jonathan Moyo became the public face of this project.

The public media became the mouthpiece of the party. The Information ministry spoke for the party and acted for the party. More outlets of patronage were added to the civil service to feed the party’s insatiable appetite for power.

Ministers and other senior government officials were potty-trained to read from the same hymn sheet in defence of Zanu PF. Senior administrative positions in government were staffed with Zanu PF cardholders whose perception of service was attuned to serve the party first.

The post 2000 era saw the morphing of the army, the police and even the judiciary into political centres of power with deference to Zanu PF. This project breathed a bit of life into Zanu PF’s waning soul but unfortunately the civil service faltered in tandem with the failing economy. It again started to fail in its duty to prop up the party by providing crucial logistical support and playing the commissariat role.

To get fresh impetus, the party turned to the security establishments for support, hence the overt militarisation of civic duties. Serving soldiers and ex-servicemen were appointed to crucial positions in parastatals and governments departments.

They were recruited to head government taskforces and boards. Through the JOC, the military was invited into the governance system to formulate virtually all government policies and supervise their implementation. It is not surprising therefore that Mugabe should  turn to the military to run his campaign in the run-off last June.

This is the big task ahead for new Public Service minister Prof Elphas Mukonoweshuro in reforming the public service. The process to sharpen the profile of the civil service should take two key dimensions: exorcising the ghost of Zanu PF from sections of the civil service and chaperoning the military back to the barracks.

Perhaps this was what President Mugabe meant on Wednesday when he repeated his famous statement of yesteryear that we should “beat swords into ploughshares”.

The civil service has been abused –– and has become abusive –– and it is important for the new administration to put in place measures to protect it from political partisanship and interference.

There must be a realisation that higher level civil servants do not only implement public policy but can also promote broad public interest and prevent any future abuse of powers by politicians.

BY VINCENT KAHIYA