Thursday, February 02, 2017

More alike than you think

One of the strangest stories from 2016 was the thieving that afflicted members of staff of the Standard Media Group. In one farcical event, a beauteous TV newsreader had her car stolen by a colleague. The thief claimed that he and the TV newsreader were in a romantic relationship and that she had lent him her car so that he could drive home for the holidays. He couldn't explain, however, why he changed the number plates of the car in question and why he didn't park it in his home but at an out-of-the-way car wash. It has emerged from various sources that the media company's staff steal from each other on a regular basis.

This is but one example of the challenges bedevilling the private sector in Kenya. Bob Collymore, the happy-socks-wearing head honcho of Safaricom, Kenya's most valuable company, highlighted another: the increasing cases of corruption and influence-peddling in Kenya's private companies. His company has fired dozens of members of staff for fraud. But it is in combatting the corruption that is beginning to hobble Safaricom's operations that Mr Collymore highlights a little-known facet of private-sector entrepreneurship.

It is now apparent that thieving or corrupt acts are not the preserve of the public sector or public officers; the private sector, too, suffers its own scourges.

The public sector is vilified for being too large, too wasteful, too expensive and too useless in dozens of publicised cases. This mantra is repeated even when the data doesn't support the allegation. In 2015, at the height of the teachers' strike, it was alleged that there was a shortage of teachers. Kwame Owino, of the Institute of Economic Affairs, citing a report from 2014, reminded us that at an average of one teacher for every forty-two pupils, Kenya had sufficient numbers of teachers. What was happening, though, was that teachers were poorly distributed such that some schools had a teacher-to-student ratio of 1:70 while others had a ratio of 1:35.

The same logic is at play. Because of sensational reports of grand acts of corruption that have yet to lead to any meaningful prosecutions, the theory goes, then the entire public service is made up of the corrupt. Alternatively, because of a few highlighted cases of malingering, every single public officer is an idler, so lazy that they couldn't even bend down to retie a loose shoelace. Like any large bureaucracy, the public service has its fair share of the lazy, the incompetent, the corrupt and the malign. The vast majority are just content to do their job without any fuss. Every now and then, a few of them demonstrate bursts of inspiration that solve problems for the people. All in all, like many employers, the public service is average in almost everything it does.

Safaricom comes to mind, once more. After a false start, it is now the undisputed leader in mobile telephony and mobile money in Kenya. However, in that industry, Airtel and Orange Telekom are anything but average or, as some exit the market entirely, below average. The public service may be the largest employer and some of its officers may be the best-paid in the country, but this isn't as strange or as unique as the public service's detractors would have you believe. Their solutions to what they believe are the failings of the public service are salary-reductions, retrenchments and sackings and anti-corruption witch-hunts, not ways and means to boost efficiency and effectiveness, reduce waste, detect and prevent causes of corruption, and, generally, improve the quality of public goods and services offered by the public service.

In Kenya, bitching about things is easier than thinking through possible solutions for what ails our public service. Pity.

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