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Public Service in Africa: four key messages from the 2018 Ibrahim Forum

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.

At the 2018 Ibrahim Forum, held in April in Kigali, Rwanda, prominent policy-makers, experts and civil society representatives from Africa and beyond discussed challenges and opportunities for public service in Africa. This topic is key to African governance and leadership, as without strong public services and committed public servants there will be no efficient delivery of expected public goods and services.

However, to date, public service has not been widely investigated or discussed in relevant fora. To fill this gap and ground the discussion on the most recent and reliable facts and figures on the issue, the Foundation produced a Forum Report. To make the debate inclusive, a Now Generation Forum was organised prior to the high-level forum, to gather the voice of the African youth, both as the majority of Africans and as tomorrow’s leaders.

Wrapping up, four main messages can be extracted from the research findings and from the Ibrahim Forum conclusions:

Growing demands and low capacity

Over the last decade, African citizens’ satisfaction with how their governments guarantee basic public services, such as safety, rule of law, education or health, seems to have diminished. At the same time, new expectations have appeared, amplified by the 21st century’s multiplying challenges and Africa’s specific young and urbanising demography: demands for solidarity, culture, protection against various criminal threats, jobs, business-enabling environments, climate change mitigation, food security, etc.

Despite a rising demand, the average African public service displays a lack of capacity across the continent. African public services remain relatively small employers, with higher costs than in other regions and large country disparities. Political dependence is strong, working equipment is scarce, corruption is among the highest at global level, 'ghost public servants' populate many services, while too many of the best-trained employees choose to work abroad. Building public services in post-conflict settings, often from scratch, represents a specific challenge.

African public services are not just a basket case

The first good news is that public services are not alone. In 2018, the 20 biggest cities of the continent currently manage populations bigger than many countries. In cities such as Kampala and Johannesburg, a new generation of mayors are an example of modernising public services, supported by teams of young and motivated Africans. Secondly, African public services are not just about men in suits doing paperwork. Programs in Liberia and Ghana for instance succeed in attracting youth talent into public service. Rwanda has been at the forefront of ensuring performance in public service through the use of performance contracts (Imihigo), rooted in the country’s cultural practice. The African Association for Public Service and Management (AAPAM), the African Training and Research Centre in Administration for Development (CAFRAD), and national institutions embed best practices across the continent.

Finally, Africa has demonstrated a unique capacity to leapfrog applying innovation and technology to public service delivery. In Rwanda, drones are used to deliver blood and medical supplies. Likewise, in Côte d’Ivoire, drones ensure the maintenance of the country’s electricity network. In Kenya, through Huduma, public services are available electronically and offline communities are reached by mobile offices. In Nigeria, digital applications have been developed to monitor the implementation of government’s projects.

African ownership of public policies is key

Countries should own their public policies as dependency on donors or other actors such as the private sector are likely to undermine the main mission of public services, which is serving citizens. Dependency on donors is risky, as prioritisation of policies could become subject to other agendas that may differ from citizens' demands and needs. While filling the gaps of poor public provision (for instance in health and education) offers a business opportunity for private actors, this may not go to the benefit of all citizens and may fuel inequalities. The Forum Report shows that Africa has the second highest private health expenditure globally and the second highest private primary school enrolment rate, and private security provision in on the rise.

Accountability and ownership by citizens to build a new social contract

To ensure an efficient match between a rising demand and a still weak supply, a sound contract must be built between citizens and public service providers, where citizens contribute taxes in exchange for public service delivery. A social contract benefits ownership and accountability at both ends, where taxpayers become stakeholders through taxes as electors do through the ballot, and public service providers become accountable to taxpayers as governments to their electorate. This means improved tax systems, processes to strengthen transparency and accountability, and more ways for citizens to monitor, oversee and participate in public service delivery – all key pillars of sound governance and effective public policy ownership.

This should be a wake-up call for governments to strengthen trust and participatory processes that involve citizenry and the youth, but also to pay attention to the issue of preserving own identity, cultural values and heritage that are at the basis of a stronger relationship between citizens and their states.

Effectiveness of the Public Service is the fourth most correlated indicator to the overall governance score in the forthcoming 2018 Ibrahim Index of Africa Governance (IIAG). This indicator captures the effectiveness of the civilian central government in designing and implementing policy, delivering public services, and managing human resources. While the correlation does not imply a causal link between a functioning and effective public service and better overall governance, it allows to state confidently that countries doing better in overall governance do have in common higher scores in public service effectiveness.

The IIAG is thus a key tool to continue monitoring the performance of African countries' public services towards the main aim of governance, which is serving citizens and making sure that no one if left behind in their enjoyment of basic rights and services. And this is key to keep the momentum around public service and make sure that the wealth of the conclusions of the 2018 Ibrahim Forum is not lost.