Civil servants are the foundation of any good democracy

COMMENT

With the Ghanaian elections having taken place on Monday, there have been robust debates about how to sustain a strong democracy and ensure elected officials are responsive to the needs of their constituents. Many of these conversations have particularly focused on elections and political parties, but there is a critical piece to this puzzle that is being overlooked.

The civil service is ultimately responsible for translating campaign promises made by politicians into concrete policies and programmes. The civil service is uniquely positioned to be the anchor institution that serves the country at all times, including during elections when political parties and candidates compete to determine who wins the mandate of the people to govern for another term, and it is time for voters and leaders alike to take note. 

Why the civil service matters

Effective civil service is critical to good governance, economic development, and executing the social contract between government and the governed. According to the 2018 Ibrahim Forum Report, “Public Service in Africa,” governments across the continent struggle with a lack of capacity in meeting their citizens’ growing needs. Underscoring the importance of the public service generally, Mo Ibrahim has argued that without a strong public service and committed public servants, there would be no efficient delivery of expected public goods and services. 

An important source of the competence of the civil service is the recruitment of young cohorts of talented individuals. Although economic prospects have improved for young people in Africa, choosing to become part of the government workforce is not yet seen as a compelling path because of a variety of reasons, from lack of awareness to low pay and lack of prestige. Until a new generation breaks this mould, government institutions in Africa are at risk of lagging behind their more robust social and private sector counterparts.

Many of the current attempts to improve governments’ services to their citizens have relied on international institutions and foreign development agencies coming in for short-term advisory positions. Such interventions involve sharing technical knowledge and promoting internal reforms as part of the conditions associated with development assistance. This practice fails to create opportunities for the talent and expertise that already exists within the country. Investing in young local leaders offers a longer-term, more sustainable approach to creating a talented and effective government workforce that is responsive to the needs of the citizens and reinforces efforts to pursue its development goals.

Providing a clear, merit-based pathway to bring the best and brightest of young Ghanaians into the civil service strengthens government services and its quality more effectively and sustainably than importing international experts for short-term projects. I know because I’ve seen it with the young leaders I work with.

A proven path

Two years ago, a cohort of recent university graduates entered the Ghanaian civil service as part of a fellowship program I lead, Emerging Public Leaders-Ghana (EPL-Ghana). The fellows committed to serve two years in the public service, during which they receive leadership training and mentorship. The expectation is for them to choose to continue with a career in the civil service after the completion of the fellowship. 

This fellowship is modelled after EPL’s sister organisation in Liberia, started in 2009, which recruits and supports young, innovative civil servants — 86% of whom are still serving in various ministries today. This dedicated programme invites talent to the civil service who otherwise would be missed. Only 18% of participants in the Liberian fellowship said they would have attempted a different route into a public sector career. The rest would have pursued alternative career paths, mostly in the more lucrative private sector. The fellowship gave them access to serving the country in a way they would not otherwise have considered or have had access to.   

Investment pays off

The investment in young civil servants pays dividends over time, and translates to better services for citizens. For example, one of the EPL-Ghana fellows, Vasco Ayere Avoka, volunteered his time as a contact tracer in Accra with the Korle Klottey Municipal Health Directorate. Once leadership recognised his unique computing and technical skills, he was pulled into an analyst role after just two weeks in the field to help senior officials at the Ghana Health Service make decisions about where and how to deploy their contact tracing teams. 

Elections make headlines, but civil servants work behind the scenes to strengthen the entire democracy. The future of the civil service, and the services it provides, depends on our ability to recruit, develop and support the next generation of leaders.

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Yawa Hansen-Quao
Yawa Hansen-Quao is the executive director of Emerging Public Leaders, a public service fellowship recruiting civil service leaders across Africa.

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