kheru2006 (kheru2006) wrote,

Reform the public service

Exasperated by the continued nonchalance of the public service that seems impervious to the exhortations of the auditor general in his annual and quarterly reports, the chief secretary to the government, the head of the public service, last week came out with guns ablazing on a torrent of measures to ensure greater discipline and efficiency in the public service.

An exit policy, which had long been on the drawing board, has become a reality. Key performance indicators (KPIs) will monitor a public servant’s work progress.

A continued poor showing of those put on probation for want of efficiency will get them the boot. Two factors appear to be behind the chief secretary’s unease.

One is that the public has become tired of the mischiefs of the public service. They appear resigned to their fate that nothing good will come out of the auditor general’s reports.

There is truth to this public disaffection.

Despite similar damning reports on government mismanagement over the past decades, the government has not been successful in securing the change required to show demonstrable progress in financial accountability.

The public service seems inured against learning from past mistakes. In fairness, it must be acknowledged that the disciplinary whip has been cracked against errant employees in the past.

However, the whip has been lashed so sporadically and often at errant junior subordinates that it has been powerless to uproot the entrenched indifference to financial rectitude.

Hence the espousal of speedier enforcement of sanctions against wrong-doers. The second reason for the chief secretary’s concern is that the virtues of efficiency and integrity are not an option to the public service, even if some of its members consider that, as the service does not compensate them appropriately, they can help themselves to any opportunity to augment their income.

Some invoke, paradoxically, divine providence for their ill-gotten gains. Or, given security of tenure, the bad hats consider that they can afford the luxury of being lazy.

The recent measures largely resemble those of Jack Welch who helmed General Electric for 20 years from 1980. In his book Jack:

Straight from the Gut, Jack Welch, or Neutron Jack as he is dubbed for firing over 100,000 workers, realised how C-grade underperformers — the bottom 10 per cent in performance — can badly affect the efficiency of the team or even the whole organisation. Not that these underperformers are useless per se.

It is that they have not found their niche within the organisation in terms of their skills and alignment to the organisational culture.

Or they have not been coached or told where they stood in the organisation based on a robust system of performance appraisal.

So, these underperformers have to be coached. They have to be given another chance and another year to buck up; failing which, it is best that they be released to find work elsewhere that is more fitted to their skills and vocation.

Evidently, in granting probation for the inefficient rather than an outright sack, the chief secretary has been moved by compassion — a noble value of the public service and a reflection of society’s ideals.

The gratitude engendered through this humane approach will, in all likelihood, be reciprocated by the employee through better performance and thereby to better public services over the long haul.

Ideally, the probation should be offered at another job — one that is more aligned to the officer’s skills, experience and interest.

This is because if he had been found wanting in his current job, the chances are that any improvement in performance in that same job might be marginal compared with one that is more suited to the employee.

Even if a transfer is not an option, the officer should be coached for higher performance. He should be given tasks that challenge his capabilities and unleash his potential.

While the public service focuses on rehabilitating the underperformers, the high achievers should not be neglected.

Jack Welch offers his 20-70-10 principle to managing people. He categorised them into three grades — A (the top 20 per cent), B (middle 70 per cent) and C.

Accordingly, he would rather have the public service spend oodles of time on the grade B officers (those hard-working individuals who have yet to realise their full potential) and the grade A category of staff (the high performers).

Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman echo a similar refrain. In their book First, Break All the Rules, they suggest that managers should focus on their most productive staff.

Otherwise, these A-graders might think that the underperformers are more important and may themselves start to slacken.

However, that does not mean we should neglect the stragglers.

Poor performance must be tackled uncompromisingly as the chief secretary rightly does.

Otherwise, poor performance will degenerate further and infect the whole organisation much to the detriment of service delivery.

The chief secretary’s measures will surely stir the bureaucracy from its inertia. But quite unlike James Bond’s martini that is “stirred but not shaken”, the public service may require reform to spur it to a higher standard of excellence.

This revamp is necessary as the issue of efficiency is systemic.

The issue, therefore, also requires a more holistic approach to its resolution. That will be another subject matter for discussion.
Prof Datuk Dr. John Antony Xavier is head of the Strategic Centre for Public Policy NST Home News Columnists Opinions 6 June 2016 @ 11:01 AM
Tags: governnment
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