The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.
An extended version of the 2018 Ibrahim Forum conclusions will be published shortly.
A key event of the Foundation's annual Ibrahim Governance Weekend (IGW) since 2010, the Ibrahim Forum is a high-level discussion forum dedicated to one specific issue of critical importance to Africa that demands committed leadership and sound governance.
This year, the focus was on Public Service in Africa. In the opening speech, Mo Ibrahim, Chair of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, underlined the timeliness and importance of having a conversation on such topic:
Public service is the pillar of governance. Without strong public services and committed public servants, there will be no efficient delivery of expected public goods and services, nor implementation of any political commitment, however strongly voiced.
Despite its fundamental role in governance and leadership, public service in Africa is seldom assessed and attracts very little interest from those who gather to discuss Africa’s potential. As a result, public servants often remain in the shadows and few think about, talk of, or praise these 'unsung heroes' of developing countries.
The discussion was organised around three sessions, touching upon the relation between public services and governance and effective leadership, new challenges and current shortcomings, the ways and means to strengthen them and how to make them appealing to the next generation. Each session was joined by a representative of the Next Generation Forum, held the previous day – Friday 27 April – around the same topic and issues.
Session 1: Growing expectations for public delivery
The first panel session discussion began by analysing citizens’ expectations as a reality-check for the delivery of public services. While 21st century challenges such as climate change and cybercrime increase the demand for public services, there will never be sufficient resources for governments to address such exponential expectations – more so in a continent where even the delivery of basic public services is poorly met. The speakers agreed on the need to reconsider the role of citizens and youth, for a citizenry that contributes to public service delivery – for instance on the model of Umuganda practice in Rwanda – instead of delegating everything to public services. Citizens’ consultations were also proposed as a means for governments to be aware of their citizens’ needs and the reality on the ground.
Common obstacles to meet citizens’ demands are faced at national as well as local levels, where municipalities often manage populations larger than countries. Besides struggling for poor resources and capacity, a key challenge was identified in the lack of integrity and accountability that should instead be at the heart of public services. While some African countries excel in best practices – such as Kenya, Mauritius and Rwanda – a culture of pride and professionalism still needs to be embedded across the continent’s public services. In the panellists’ opinion, against common stereotypes, public service can be a hub for attracting the best and the brightest, for transformation and innovation. However, the main ingredient for this are the motivation to serve the country, which is also the main mandate of public services, and the presence of a conducive and effective political leadership.
Session 2: Assessing the current supply of public services
In the second session, panellists discussed the key challenges to be addressed both to improve the delivery and the attractiveness of public service as an employer. There was a substantial consensus on the need to move away from systems based on corruption, nepotism, self-interest, political interference and impunity. A solution proposed in this sense was the progressive automation of public services, for modern work processes that benefit transparency, discipline and integrity. Moreover, investment in people was recognised by the panel as an urgent ‘must’ for African public services, be it in the form of capacity building and training, or by ensuring that the impact of individuals and good performance is praised and recognised.
Attracting and retaining the best and the brightest is a common challenge for public services across the continent and it appears that to this end that pay incentives and retention policies are important, but a culture of patriotism and civic mission is a more central element to continue to motivate people. These values made a difference in the case of Rwanda, faced with building a public service from scratch. An innovator state that invests in building capacity and sponsors innovation is also a way to attract talent from the private sector.
Africa was encouraged to find its own solutions to its problems, drawing from its wealth of resources and capacity. Making sure that relatively older leaderships can pass experience to young people is fundamental, alongside practices to encourage women and young girls to be more present in public service and in high-ranking positions, to reflect the importance women traditionally hold in African societies. Best home-grown solutions exist: for instance the President’s Young Professionals Program of Liberia, that succeeds in attracting youth talent into public service and is currently being exported to other countries, such as Ghana, under the Emerging Public Leaders initiative.
Session 3: Building a sound contract between citizens and public service providers
In the final session, the public service was defined as the customer service arm of governments, underlying its importance for cementing relations between citizens and their leadership. However, panellists consented on the general lack of trust in this area. As the starting point for the social contract, trust should be rebuilt, according to the speakers, and granted by an accountable leadership. Key for this is also bridging the generational gap between the youngest population in the world and their heads of states, as youth, which is the majority of Africa’s population, is the most impacted by the choices of its leaders.
On the other hand, there was general agreement on the need for African citizens to do more in the relationship. Not only should governments open the space for citizens to express their demands, but citizens, and youth in particular, must own and be vocal in their demands, actively participating and monitoring policies. Panellists agreed on the fact that sound governance does not depend on personalities, as ultimately Africa should rely on itself and not the intervention of a new Messiah or the next Nelson Mandela. This is clearly shown by the fact that Switzerland is a world-renowned example for its economy and public service delivery, and yet barely anyone knows the name of its president. Change starts with changing the minds of citizens and public service providers towards more accountability, and relying on the strengths of the continent, for instance its traditional authorities and institutions, rather than reaching out to external actors.
The Ibrahim Forum was thus an energetic call on Africa to value its strength and potential, for African citizens to know their worth and own their legitimate space, and for leaders to listen to their constituents. In the words of one panellist: "every time a leader designs a policy, they should ask the question how this benefits their people".