As a constant in social relations, diversity serves both as a driver of innovation and creativity, on the one hand, and, on the other, a direct or opportunistic trigger of tension and conflict. Nowhere are the positive and the negative features of diversity more striking than in public agencies. A typical agency is ordinarily established with well-defined objectives. Yet, no matter how precise the objectives are, diversity of interpretations and of perspectives most frequently take each agency in directions other than those intended. Police constables that were recruited to fight crime may end up aiding and abetting it. An organization that was set up to distribute COVID-19 relief material may be more active lining its members’ pockets than serving the needy members of the public. Interrogating the whys and wherefores of shortfalls in the fulfilment of statutory missions and service delivery pledges is the essence of agency governance diagnostics. The aim of agency governance diagnostics is to generate timely, proactive, but non-inquisitorial and non-punitive, information on “what is going on” in each agency, as part of the effort at accelerating the pace of economic growth, poverty eradication and good governance.
This paper starts with concept clarification, with particular emphasis on the meaning, methodology, and purpose of agency governance. It then proceeds to summarize the preliminary findings of an agency governance diagnostic study undertaken in Tanzania in 2016. The agency governance challenges facing the African public service before and after the onset of COVID-19 are highlighted in the third and the fourth sections, respectively. The final section signals future directions in agency governance diagnostics and reform.
Agency Governance Diagnostics: Meaning, Methodology, and Rationale
For months, port congestion had constituted a major hindrance to Nigeria’s economic growth, aside from aggravating the country’s security situation. On 11 June 2021, President Muhammadu Buhari visited the wharf to launch the Deep Blue (anti-piracy) Campaign. Then, the congestion miraculously vanished, along with the customary bedlam and shenanigans! Is there a better testimony to the significance of proactive agency governance diagnostics than this?
No matter how the preceding question is answered, agency governance is a sub-set of governance, howsoever defined. In contrast to governance that is broadly defined as “the traditions and institutions by which authority in a country is exercised for the common good” (Kauffmann, 2005), this paper portrays agency governance as the exercise of authority and the management of formal and informal relations with a view to implementing public objectives in a timely and cost-effective manner. It is the tool by which the larger promise of good governance is fulfilled (Balogun, 2003).
It is possible for policies enacted by the people’s representatives to be ‘displaced’ by internal bureaucratic politics (Downs, 1967) or by individuals and groups with their own agendas. Explaining the gaps between formally articulated ministerial missions and actual implementation (meaning, tracking the whys and wherefores of deviations from stated goals) is what agency governance diagnostics is about. Agency governance diagnostics is not an inquisition, but a conscious effort to pre-empt a crisis that might trigger a clamor for an inquisition.
Agency governance proceeds on the assumption that a system is never “suddenly” corrupt, incompetent or broken, but must have taken its time to acquire, perfect, entrench, and implicitly legitimize, or at least, condone, unhealthy habits. Spotting and stopping unwholesome habits before they harden into bad behavior is the purpose of agency governance diagnostics.
Among agency governance’s issues that any diagnostic study must address are:
- Agency organization structure, mandate/mission, policies, medium- to long-range plans, strategies and tactics (as well as the actors’ cognitive and perceptive interpretations of same);
- The interface between political power and bureaucratic authority (that is, between political functionaries and career managers, between partisanship and professionalism, and between short-term political calculations and rational, fact-supported decisions);
- The decision-making process (with emphasis on the grades of officials authorized to take discretionary and middle management decisions on wide-ranging subjects),
- The clarity, consistency and dependability of rules (including public service recruitment rules, and the public service code of ethics such as non-discrimination, equality of access, professionalism, non-partisanship, impartiality, accountability, transparency, integrity), as well as the frequency of compliance therewith or deviation therefrom);
- Internal and external accountability processes (including the service delivery agents’ accountability to the political cadres, parliament, the judiciary, auditor-general, ombudsman, senior managers, immediate supervisors, office colleagues, service beneficiaries, taxpayers, and the voting as well as the general public); and
- Mechanisms for customer/beneficiary/citizen evaluation of goods/services produced by the agency).
Agency governance indicators
It is well-nigh impossible to track the patterns and trends in agency governance until we identify the indicators to apply in constructing a composite Agency Governance Index. Subject to contextual differences, the indicators will determine the questions to insert in survey instruments to be administered on various classes of respondents (especially, MDA personnel, the service beneficiaries and the wider public). The instruments will solicit the stakeholders’ cognitive and affective responses to questions in five broad areas, notably,
- the ministerial mission/mandate,
- the policy-making process,
- trends and patterns in the exercise of formal authority by senior managers and their delegates,
- the prevailing rules regime, and
- accountability to service beneficiaries/civil society.
The indicators relevant to the understanding of the ministerial mandate include:
* clarity and precision of the mandate;
* degree of unanimity on the interpretation of the ministry’s
* alignment of organization structure and work plans with ministerial mission, medium-term plans, and long-term development vision;
* adaptability of ministerial structure to change;
* fitness (of organization structure) for purpose.
Policy Formulation Methodology and “Ownership”
The policy-making process plays a critical role in agency governance. A diagnostic study must accordingly solicit information on the following policy coherence and “ownership” indicators:
- Diversity and representativeness of the policy-making group (by gender, ethnicity, region, worldview, etc.);
- Unanimity on the accuracy, reliability, and timeliness/contemporaneousness of information/data relied upon by policy makers;
- Degree of importance accorded scenario construction/game theoretical models, data collection and analysis in the policy formation and implementation process;
- Level of mutual trust and confidence prevailing in relations between the political and the career wings of policy;
- The significance attached to participation by external stakeholders (the private sector, professional associations, trade unions, civic bodies, think tanks, academic institutions etc.) in the policy formulation or review processes;
- Respect for the rule of law at the policymaking level;
- The policy-making group’s ranking on the integrity/“rectitude’’ scale (i.e., how political and career heads of MDAs rank on public integrity, avoidance of conflict of interest situations, observance of due process, and accountability to internal and external oversight bodies).
Exercise and delegation of authority
Regarding the exercise of formal and discretionary authority by career officials and their proxies, attention should focus on the following indicators, among others:
- Diversity and representativeness of the senior management group (by gender, region, worldview, etc);
- Effectiveness of the ministry’s data collection, archiving/storage, and retrieval system;
- Unanimity on the accuracy, reliability and timeliness/contemporaneousness of information/data at the disposal of senior and middle managers;
- The weight given to simulation, data and analysis in the management decision process (finance, personnel, procurement and inventory, work scheduling, workflow planning, transportation, routing, and warehousing, and productivity management decisions, etc.)
- Responsiveness of decisions to internal and external “demands”;
- Respect for the rule of law at the senior management level;
- Observance of human and civil rights in the implementation of policies and programmes;
- Managers’ capacity for the management of change, diversity, and dissent;
- State of morale, motivation and esprit de corps in the ministry/agency;
- Scope for rank-and-file participation in decision-making (including frequency of delegation, and willingness to release the resources needed by field offices and service delivery agents to provide quality service);
- Effectiveness of supervision, mentoring, and control.
Rule interpretation and application
The indicators normally associated with rule interpretation and application include:
- The fit between the rules and performance expectations/standards, and between legal stipulations and actual behavior;
- Rationality and topicality of rules (e.g., the rule requiring the police not to act on a missing-person’s report until forty-eight hours have elapsed since the disappearance or abduction of a person);
- Transparency in rules interpretation (any hint of favoritism?);
- Consistency in rule application (any justification for departing from precedents?);
- Fairness and impartiality in rule interpretation and application;
- Accuracy, reliability, consistency, and continued relevance/topicality/contemporaneousness of rules applied in deciding cases, arbitrating disputes, and serving the public;
- Cost-consciousness and effectiveness of applicable rules;
- Responsiveness of rules to “customer” demands for choice, equity, equal treatment, courtesy, and for prompt, cost-effective delivery of services, confidentiality, proximity of service perimeter to beneficiaries, one-stop shops, process simplification and due process etc.
- Effectiveness of grievance handling and appeal procedure.
Accountability for service delivery
Agency governance is meaningless if it does not include accountability to the citizen and to the service beneficiaries. The markers of accountability include:
- Service beneficiaries’ familiarity with the ministry’s internal processes;
- Service beneficiaries’ respect for due process and willingness to abide by the rules;
- Frequency and legitimacy of citizen demands on ministry;
- Service beneficiaries’ perceptions of the competence, integrity, effectiveness of ministry’s service delivery agents, as well as the agents’ willingness to treat all clients/citizens equally, without discrimination or favoritism;
- Range and effectiveness of communication channels linking the citizen with the ministry;
- Accuracy, reliability, consistency, timeliness/contemporaneousness of information supplied by the ministry to the public;
- Opportunities for, and frequency of, citizen/customer evaluation of ministry’s outputs/services;
- Level of citizen trust and confidence in public officials.
Agency Governance Across Cultures: Focus on Institutional Integrity
Progress in the enhancement of agency governance standards across the board hinges on the effort made to subdue a major challenge, corruption. A clear perversion of due process, the monster takes different forms. It manifests, among other things, as the seizure of public office for private gain, the offer and/or acceptance of bribes, the manipulation of procurement or recruitment processes, favoritism at recruitment interviews, plain nepotism, sale of official secrets to the highest bidder, over-invoicing, inflation of contract prices, influence peddling, extortion, desecration and willful mockery of official oaths, subversion/castration of internal processes to serve external interests, false declaration, doctoring of records, divided loyalty/conflict of interest, solicitation of political, godfather, or other high-level support to exert undue influence on decision makers.
Fortunately, not every country has fallen prey to corruption. Figure 1 below represents the group of countries in which most people (and by implication, public officials) subscribe to high ethical principles. This group of “saints” contrasts sharply with a second group, that of “sinners”, meaning the group of countries in which “anything goes” (Figure 2). The third category denotes a typical society, one which is neither populated entirely by “saints” nor colonized predominantly by “sinners”, but in which both character ideal-types are evenly matched. In this hypothetically “normal” society, the generality of the people (and public officials) straddle, or shuttle between, two traditions, i.e., between Group 1 and Group 2 ethical traditions.
Agency governance is a relatively simple process in countries falling under Group 1. Like any human society, Group 1 countries have their own share of individuals with bad habits. However, the sinners are in the minority, and what is more, radars exist on which their bad behavior could be easily picked up and subsequently rectified.
Group 2 countries are, by contrast, beset with epic agency governance and performance management challenges. In countries where corruption holds sway, it is difficult to distinguish between good and bad behavior, or to separate saints from sinners. In such countries, grave security challenges (like kidnapping, banditry, human and drug trafficking, and small arms proliferation) spin out of control while the agencies created to tackle those challenges scramble, albeit unsuccessfully, for breakthroughs. Not only have public institutions been captured in countries falling under Group 2, but public administration deficits have also widened to an extent that civilization is imperilled and society inches towards dissolution.
Agency governance challenges in Group 3 countries fall somewhere between the good and the bad, with the beautiful constantly battling the ugly.
Fig. 1: Population Distribution in a society with a clear ethical direction
Agency governance diagnostics in Tanzania: Preliminary Findings
A diagnostic study carried out in Tanzania under the auspices of UONGOZI in 2016 followed the steps outlined in the preceding paragraphs. The study was basically a two-sided mirror enabling the respondents to look at themselves and others. One side (the side that can be equated with a ‘selfie’) depicted the state of agency governance as seen from within, that is, as perceived by the officials themselves. The other side provided glimpses of the agencies from without—meaning, from the viewpoint of service beneficiaries and other external stakeholders.
Among the study’s preliminary findings are the following:
- political heads of ministries and career officials largely agreed on the purpose of their Ministries’ existence;
- agency mandates are nonetheless subject to diverse interpretations by various classes of stakeholders;
- even career officials are apt to view their agencies’ mandates from different angles;
- the absence of a shared vision is capable of undermining agency capacity to align medium-term plans with statutory mandates, match individual performance with corporate expectations, and, of utmost importance, align ministerial processes and outputs with citizen demands;
- failure to align internal processes with external demands contributed to the declining faith in public officials;
- a high proportion of respondents from civic bodies believes that career officials are liable to think and possibly work at cross-purposes;
- the views of the clients (in business and civic organizations) were not widely solicited before Customer Service Charters were promulgated;
- the service delivery pledges incorporated in the Client Service Charters fell short of specifyingthe quantities and quality of outputs/outcomes/results that service delivery agents are expected to produce within precise timelines;
- the proportion of MDA respondents that deem personnel rules “rational and performance-facilitating”) is relatively low;
- whatever confidence the MDA respondents might have in the accuracy and reliability of data for decision-making is not shared by their civil society counterparts;
- delegation is not a regular and widespread practice in the Ministries that participated in the survey;
- the majority of the MDA respondents have a “somewhat high” and “high” (but not “very high”) opinion of their own integrity and professionalism;
- like their MDA counterparts, civil society respondents largely believe that “very high” does not accurately describe public officials’ level of integrity;
- Not one external assessor finds the service delivery arrangements “very effective/highly responsive”;
- the majority of service beneficiaries were far from satisfied with service quality.
Agency Governance and Public Service Performance Issues in Africa Before COVID19
Tanzania’s experience underscores the enormity of the challenges facing the African public service in aligning internal agency governance practices with growing public demand for quality service. Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, access to essential services had been restricted in many African countries. Due to a combination of factors, among them, population growth, economic downturn, budget deficits, and unresolved internal governance issues, the average citizen had been denied access to various categories of services.
For instance, classrooms for school-age children are either in short supply and/or in decrepit conditions. Children who manage to go to school and to graduate successfully spend years looking for jobs. Low doctor-patient and high patient-bed ratios conspired with drug shortages to block access to improved health care. Cumbersome business registration processes and punitive taxation constituted serious obstacles to foreign and domestic investment. In some countries, corruption constitutes a major hindrance to efficient and effective delivery of policing, justice dispensation, and other essential services.
Table 1 provides an overview of agency governance and performance challenges facing the African public service as well as the efforts made to overcome them before the onset of COVID-19.
Table 1: Survey of agency governance & performance deficits Before COVID-19
|Service delivery deficits||Corrective measures instituted with varying degrees of success|
|1. Absence of a customer-caring culture.||1. South Africa’s “Batho Pele” (focus on consultation, access, courtesy, accountability, and performance contracting initiatives across Africa)|
|2. Failure to solicit the views of the “citizen-customer” in the formulation of performance indicators.||2. Design and promulgation of Citizen Service Charters|
|3. Failure to set measurable cost, output, time, and quality standards.||3. Setting of output, cost, time, and quality standards (work in progress)|
|4. Process, workflow, and service perimeter design challenges.||4. Process re-engineering and Total Quality Management|
|5. Data gaps and archiving weaknesses (e.g. gaps in population census, domestic and external debt folders, public assets register, and civil service staff disposition list)||5. civic registration and identity numbering, review and update of debt statistics, review and update of assets register, removal of “ghost” workers from the payroll, and ICT applications.|
|6. Ethical violations and declining public trust in government (trust deficit)||6. Anti-corruption initiatives|
COVID19 and post-Pandemic Demands on Public Service Agencies
Meanwhile, COVID 19 has made a bad situation worse. The lockdown has, along with other restrictions dictated by the public health crisis, eroded the economy’s productive capacity, disrupted supply lines, and upset marketing and distribution plans. Meanwhile, lackluster economic growth has diminished job opportunities, and placed undue restrictions on access to essential services like security of life and property, electricity, potable water, sanitation, health and medical care.
When compared to other regions of the world, Africa has managed to escape the full impact of the pandemic. Where the number of cases as at mid-May 2021 stood at 166.1 million worldwide, with 3,444,498 virus-related deaths, Africa’s reported cases and mortality rates within the same period were 4.7 million and 127,923, respectively. South Africa, Morocco, Tunisia, Ethiopia, and Egypt were the worst hit.
The Africa continent might have been let off lightly by the global public health pandemic, but it could not escape the pandemic’s economic knock-on effects and aftershocks, especially, considering the pandemic’s impact on Africa’s principal trading partners. Both the formal and the informal sectors took a hit, as outside economies on which they depended for continued growth had been crippled by the Coronavirus. Europe, a major destination of African exports, lost 14.6 percent of working hours to the pandemic in 2020 (ILO: 2021). As a result of plant shutdowns and pandemic-induced supply chain dislocations, private business firms dipped into their cash reserves to mitigate the pandemic-triggered hardships.
Overtime, and unless the pandemic is quickly brought under control in all parts of the world, Africa risks being plunged into recession and a full-blown financial crisis. It can still escape the doomsday scenario if both the public and the private sectors of the economy move decisively to make up for lost time.
On the positive side, the COVID-19 taught many lessons that may prove useful when normalcy returns. The pandemic compelled many organizations, public and private, to apply new processes to ensure business continuity. The face masks and the sanitary habits dictated by pandemic may also prove useful at the end of the pandemic, particularly, during flu seasons.
It should be clear by now that the attention paid to broad constitutional power sharing issues should be extended to the reform of agency governance practices. After all, it is within agencies that services of concern to the average citizen are planned, managed, and, with varying degrees of success, delivered.
To reposition the African economy for the challenge of post-COVID19 reconstruction and accelerated development, public agencies must accordingly take occasional pulses of their internal operations, paying special attention to processes, attitudes, and practices capable of undermining their capacity to attain their underlying quality service objectives.
A case currently getting public attention in Nigeria underscores the need for a proactive diagnosis of agency governance practices. For quite sometime, port congestion had constituted a serious headache not only for importers but also for clearing and forwarding agents. It was to avoid the headache that the government created the Nigerian Ports Authority, which is also a major revenue earner and Nigeria’s principal link to external markets. As of 2017 and 2018, the Authority had remitted no less than N74.94billion into the Consolidated Revenue Fund. Above all, port operations have significant national security implications.
The NPA came to public attention when, on top of the congestion at the ports, its management was accused of remitting to the Consolidated Revenue Fund less than the N165billion expected from it. The NPA’s clients for their part griped about the interminable delays in transferring imported goods from containers on the high seas to customs long rooms, and in clearing the goods for release to the importers. They complained of extortion by Port and customs officials.
Over time, the NPA Managing Director became the principal target of attack. She was accused of manipulating procurement processes, of unilaterally selecting the firms to bid for contracts, and, of using the COVID-19 restrictions as a pretext to hand-pick the Port staff to report at the office during weekends to work on pre-selected bids. It was also alleged that, in an attempt at evading checks and balances and frustrating due process, she arbitrarily relocated the procurement department to her office. Other allegations soon filtered into cyberspace. The Managing Director was accused of influence peddling, of failing to remove herself from conflict-of-interest situations, and of arbitrarily granting waivers to cronies, that is, waivers of port charges running into billions of Naira. Most serious of all, her detractors successfully pinned on her the charge of bye-passing the Transportation Minister and hobnobbing with the nation’s shakers and movers. She naturally denied the allegations.
The Managing Director’s high-level connections served her for some time. With direct access to the President, she was able to go over the head of the Transportation Minister, her hierarchical superior, to obtain approval for courses of action, some which turned out to be highly controversial. When public outcry became loud and insistent, the Minister decided to assert his authority. On 6th May, he got the President’s approval of the recommendation that the Managing Director be suspended, and that a panel of inquiry be set up to probe the governance of the Nigerian Ports authority from 2016 to the time she was instructed to “step aside”.
On 10 May 2021, the Minister inaugurated the panel whose terms of reference include examining and investigating:
- the administrative policies and strategies adopted by the suspended NPA Managing Director and confirm compliance with extant laws and rules from 2016 till date.
- issues leading to the termination of other contracts of NPA and confirm compliance with the terms of the respective contracts, court ruling and presidential directives.
- compliance with communication channel, as obtained in the public service.
- the procurement of contracts from 2016 to date.
- And any other matter that may be necessary in the course of the assignment,
The panel was also to “come up with suggestions and advice that would strengthen the operations of NPA and forestall such occurrences in future”. In case anyone asked why a panel of inquiry was necessary, the Minister replied with his own question:
“What is wrong in looking at what is happening in NPA? I don’t see what is wrong in that. As the Minister of Transportation for four years, I hardly know what is happening and I want to know now…. The president agrees with me that it’s my responsibility as minister to find out what is going on.”
Surely, any Minister must know what is happening on his/her watch. The question is why Nigeria had to wait for a major crisis before acknowledging the significance of a painless way of knowing “what is going on” in an economically significant agency? A timely, proactive, but non-inquisitorial and non-punitive, diagnosis of NPA’s governance practices would have shown “what is going on” and would have done a lot of good not only to the Government’s revenue generation efforts but also to Nigeria’s economic recovery and self-sustaining growth. Even the Managing Director would have avoided the embarrassment of being asked to step aside.
The NPA case study thus underscores the necessity for national, regional, and international institutions to place agency governance diagnostics on their agenda. For a start, and under the leadership of the Pan African Conference of Public Service Ministers, organizations such as the African Union, CAFRAD, the African Development Bank, UNDP, AAPAM, the Commonwealth Secretariat, the ACBF, and UNDESA should set up a Working Group on Agency Governance Research and Training. The Group’s terms of reference will be to promote awareness of the benefits of agency governance diagnostics, and to mobilize the resources needed to extend the frontiers of knowledge of agency governance in Africa.
Since agency heads are almost invariably appointed based on political connections rather than demonstrable managerial skills and experience, African Governments should ensure that all political appointees undergo intensive training in agency governance.
At the same time, attention should focus on measures aimed at profiting from the lessons learnt from the COVID19 restrictions. While the social distancing protocols need to be relaxed where human interactions prove indispensable to the attainment of specific objectives, face masks and the concomitant sanitary habits should be part of the “new normal”, especially, during flu seasons. At the same time, the process changes that proved helpful to business continuity during the pandemic should be retained and improved upon thereafter.
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