The futility of cabinet reshuffles

By Nii Moi Thompson

Atta Mills

There are increasing calls for yet another cabinet reshuffle. The President should reject these calls and concentrate instead on building 21st-century institutions that meet the needs of 24 million Ghanaians with efficacy, equity and of course efficiency.

Cabinet reshuffles don’t do any of these. They are an archaic form of political management that needlessly strikes fear in Ministers, disrupts their professional concentration and personal lives, and worse, leaves the fundamental causes of governmental ineptitude untouched. They represent, in the words of Shakespeare, sound and fury that ultimately signify nothing.

(Liberia’s President recently dismissed her entire cabinet, save one. That says more about her own judgment and leadership capabilities than it does her victims, all of whom she selected presumably on the basis of competence.

Could they all have been so incompetent after all? Or, in selecting them, did she, as President, make a monumental error in judgment for which she – not they – should be punished?).

In Ghana, President J.A. Kufuor could have achieved a lot more in his eight years if he had been less fond of cabinet reshuffles (and the whimsical renaming of Ministries), and concentrated instead on building modern institutions for national development.
Public sector reforms and “private sector development” under him seemed more designed to impress donors than to advance the cause of Ghana’s development.
The Ministry of Employment and Social Welfare, for example, had five Ministers over eight years and was renamed twice. Not surprisingly, many critical initiatives, such as the much-ballyhooed presidential summit on employment, never materialized.

high economic growth

Low job creation was the Achilles heel of his legacy of high economic growth, most of it propelled by capital-intensive industries like mining and voracious but inefficient public procurement machinery.

Already, the current Ministry of Youth and Sports is on its third minister in less than two years; a few other ministries have had their ministers shuffled about already.

But the fundamental problems of these and other Ministries remain. They are plagued by outmoded and inefficient systems, inadequate budgets, and lack of a critical mass of well-motivated mid-level staff to support ministers at the top and provide operational direction to the frontline deliverers of development at the bottom.

Successive public sector reforms have had some effect but failed in the main to bring the sector into the 21st century.

Most government processes today are the same as they were 80 years ago when the population was less than a quarter of what it is now and the focus of government was colonial exploitation not national development.

As a result, the bureaucracy is overwhelmed and incapable of responding to the development needs of Ghanaians, irrespective of which government is in power or which minister is in office.

At the same time, budgets for ‘services’ and ‘investments’, which are needed to address these deficiencies, have been consistently slashed over the years and the money used to finance an already-bloated government wage bill.

The upshot is a paradox of a large army of public sector employees who get paid regularly for doing nothing because they are given nothing to work with.

The brazen and reckless politicization of the technocracy (mid-level staff) is another weakness in the development machinery which cabinet reshuffles cannot fix. This situation has been aggravated in recent times by the ‘proceed on leave’ virus.

The sum effect is that highly competent Ghanaians have taken up positions with international organizations and even foreign governments as new governments come to power and force them out for one flimsy reason or the other.

We invest in their education and then turn around to find some lame reasons not to reap the rewards of that investment. This is madness.

State-owned enterprises have not been spared either. Cronyism aligned with the electoral cycle has turned them into revolving doors for mediocrity, incompetence and impunity with every change of government.

ECG and GWC typify this rank perversion of state enterprises at the expense of professionalism and the public good as they extract successively higher tariffs from consumers but ensure the continued provision of substandard service because nobody gets fired no matter how incompetent they may be.

And then there is the productive (or private) sector, which is fragmented, weak, bereft of innovation, victimized or marginalized by successive governments, and ill-prepared for the rigors of globalization. Work ethic and management practices in the sector remain poor, even primitive.

national consensus

The fortunes (or misfortunes) of many businesses now rise and fall with the electoral cycle, despite a seeming national consensus that the “private sector is the engine of growth”.

This politically motivated subversion of the sector is part of the reason the Ghanaian economy has been posting impressive but jobless rates of growth for decades.

It is the ultimate source of all the restlessness of the nation’s youth and in particular the recent phenomenon of “foot soldiers”.

To be sure, leadership still matters, if only because it too requires some institutional “reforms” to make it purposeful and effective.

One gets the impression that many high-ranking officials, including some ministers, are appointed without any clear mandate as to exactly what is expected of them and how they would be assessed.

Nor do they fully appreciate the enormity of the task they face and the constraints involved: Delivering development in four years, which means that every single moment of their time in office matters.

Regrettably, some of these officials don’t even recognize the fact that time is a resource – the ultimate resource – for development. To misuse time is to misuse all other resources, including the yet-to-be-pumped oil that we are all salivating over.

habitual lateness

Besides their habitual lateness to everything, many public officials spend precious work hours indulging in frivolous and unprofitable things like newspaper reviews, often forced to discuss issues that they clearly know little or nothing about but yet lack the humility and integrity to concede as much.

Not surprisingly, they sometimes end up igniting controversies that have absolutely nothing to do with their work, creating needless distractions from the more serious business of national development.

Beyond their vanity, such officials constitute a drag on governance and their outright dismissal from government would actually do more to enhance the president’s development agenda than would any nebulous reshuffle which would amount to little more than a costly game of musical chairs.

If it’s a question of explaining or defending government’s policies, we have the Ministry of Information and the scores of PROs that government employs to do just that.

If that proves inadequate, any of the numerous party spokespersons can always step in to help, but ministers must be ministers. Period!

Lastly, retributive ‘private sector development’ must give way to a nationalistic promotion of Ghanaian businesses, ranging from the small-and-medium-scale enterprises that will create jobs for all Ghanaians, irrespective of their political affiliation, to Ghanaian multinationals that would successfully compete with the likes of Vodafone and STX in the global marketplace and bring home billions of dollars in foreign revenue and contracts to support national development.

foot soldiers

The recent agitations by party ‘foot soldiers’ and the grumblings from the less vocal segment of the youth population over lack of decent jobs is the cumulative effect of over 30 years of jobless growth.

And we can’t tackle this problem successfully if we alienate the very Ghanaian businesses that would create jobs; government’s job-creating capacity is limited.

We need a nationalist alliance between government and business – an alliance based on ethics, mutual respect, fair play and a common pursuit of the national interest, not family or party interests as we have seen in recent times.

If the worry is that an individual businessman may use government contracts to finance opposition political activities, then the solution is to have election laws to prevent that, not blindly punish businesses which employ Ghanaians of all political stripes and even those without any interest in politics whose only interest is to be able to feed themselves and their families.

To punish an entire business because of the potential transgressions of a single individual is to suppress growth and contribute to an already precarious unemployment situation whose consequences – in the form of rising violent crimes, for example – affect us all, irrespective of our political or ideological proclivities.

We should know better. And of course do better.

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