Mastering public service bureaucracy

01 February 2013
Author   Apostle Marson Sharpley

ALLOW me space in your newspaper as an ordinary citizen of our great nation and country Namibia to repeat what we know and hear time and again and which is the truth. The Constitution of Namibia is a spectacularly splendid document.


It is not just mere letters, words, sentences and paragraphs of articles pieced together, but can also be poetically described as a linguistic montage encapsulating the sincerity and determination of the Founding Fathers of the Republic in their determination to create a model state that can be the envy of the world and the pride of its citizenry.

Well as the saying goes, “the taste of the pudding is in the eating” or something to that effect.

Allow me also to congratulate our leaders and the entire society of Namibia for having proved the prophets of doom wrong in terms of where the country would be within 10 years.

As a nation we stand tall as we walk the talk of true Pan-Africanism, as we walk the talk of national reconciliation even though much work still needs to done in convincing most of the previously advantaged citizens that reconciliation in the long term will be to the advantage of their off-spring.

Namibia can walk tall as a country because of having birthed an iconic generation of leaders in spite of all the shortcomings that we as a citizenry might highlight in their lives.

Namibia can walk tall in having well-managed her bilateral and multi-lateral diplomatic relationships by being a responsible Nation State as part of the family of the Nation States of the world.

Namibia’s reputation in her contribution and commitment to international peace and security is impeccable.

Namibia was recently listed as being the fifth economically sound democratic state in Africa and also as being at the top of the list regarding her economic transparency and accountability.

All the above, have been achieved through sheer hard work by putting institutions and systems in place with sound checks and balances.

And therefore, we can pat ourselves on the back for such geo-political and socio- economic stability.

Having said the above, allow me to caution us on the continued complication that the contraption of bureaucracy is fast becoming in the civil service.

In my opinion, a contraption is something so intricately complicated that even the creator(s) thereof finds it hard to unravel and understand.

The bureaucratization of a State(s) through the bureaucracy we put in place should and I believe is aimed at alleviating any administrative glitches that might threaten the growth and development of a nation.

The word bureaucracy is defined in the Oxford dictionary as “government by central administration” which I believe can be decentralized as we have seen so many ministries in our country doing.

Bureaucracy is therefore an administrative system in governance created, as is governance itself, by man using people whom we call experts in their fields because of their specialized studies, training and experience in the appropriate and relevant fields.

We all know then that the people who must manage this administrative system we call bureaucracy are called bureaucrats.

Just as those who handle our security are called securocrats and those that are tasked with the logistical technological capability needed to operationalize the country are called technocrats, so we have the bureaucrats.

Our democracy I believe stands on three main pillars, viz. Executive, Legislative and Administrative.

In my observation and experience as well as exposure as an ordinary citizen, to public sector bureaucracy, not only in Namibia, but in most parts of the world and more so the developing world, has the ability to leave me feeling helpless and perplexed especially when I am confronted with a cadre of bureaucrats who seem to be themselves administratively anemic.

Many times I have realized that it is not the system that is failing us, but some of the people we have misplaced in the system whereby we have perhaps put the right people in the wrong bureaucratic positions or even the wrong people in the right position of the same system.

The result is that the incumbents become so overwhelmed by the system that they blunder to the point of not only embarrassing themselves, but also the entire administrative and political spectrum.

A recent case in point in our system, without pointing an unfair finger of criticism was the shortage of ordinary passports.

I know of many other situations which have been unnecessary embarrassing moments for us as a proud nation.

The point I am trying to make is that someone in the bureaucracy, a bureaucrat, did not do their work because of reasons or a reason known only to them, but which expose their ignorance to the fact that they are part of a chain and that a chain is as strong as its weakest link.

It is also tantamount to being ignorant to the fact that when one link in the chain is weak and snaps or misinterprets the rhythm of the collective, there will be a negative chain reaction!

We must welcome the Namibia Institute of Public administration and Management (NIPAM), however, we need to employ an interviewing approach for those who want to run NIPAM that is very rigorous to the point of even vetting such applicants because once again, it is an institution being set up by people, to be managed by people for the benefit of people and therefore lends itself to the unwitting folly of people who might have been desperate for a job and happened to know someone, who knows someone that knows someone that can help to secure the job.

The cause and effect is that due to the administrative haemorrhaging just as the case of the “woman with the issue of blood” was doing in the Bible - metaphorically representing the state of the nation of Israel at that time, we create strong workable institutions and man them perhaps, wrongly or with people who lack the necessary expertise, qualifications or experience resulting in a misunderstanding and/or misrepresentation of the job description eventually negatively impacting service delivery!

Placing a person who is not qualified enough in a bureaucratic post that requires them to punch above their weight only leads to their own personal frustration which manifests as a terrible attitude towards their work responsibility and the public they should serve.

While not being easy to accommodate and finance, continuous performance enhancement assessment through in-service training in partnership with other ministries and the private sector might go a long way if well managed.

I have also realized and discovered that much of the wealth that the private sector turns around had its genesis in the fact that the public sector, viz. government through tenders, was the biggest client of such concerns where payment was and is always guaranteed.

There is nothing wrong with that, as long as all of us who receive such tenders, deliver and work towards our economic emancipation by creating actual businesses able to be sustained by a cliental other than government when the tender comes to an end and is awarded to someone else so that they also have the opportunity to get a capital boost as the previous tenderers did.

Please note that I do not at this stage want to delve too much on wealth creation, empowerment and eventual self-reliance through tenders as much as I would like to highlight the dangers of having a good bureaucracy turned bad by bureaucrats.

I believe writing and enacting laws as well as interpreting them in their implementation is no easy task and needs specialized expertise as my own stint as a diplomat in the UN previously exposed me to.

It is amazing what difference a definite article denoted by the word “the” as compared to an indefinite article such as the letter “a” can make in the contextualization and interpretation of such linguistic discourse for specific purposes such as legal and administrative language.

I realize that even in writing this article lends itself to challenging its further simplification for ordinary people like ourselves who need to learn what government is about and how bureaucracy operates as well as how bureaucrats think.

I must admit, I have met and continue to meet and also have friends and colleagues in our beautiful country who are highly professional and knowledgeable bureaucrats. And who produced them, the institutions set up by an accountable and transparent government.

We do however need the best practiced bureaucratic implementation to be harnessed from these experienced people I have mentioned.

Without sounding too morbid, I have on many occasions stood at the open grave of a family member, friend, neighbour or comrade and realized that the person being interned was one of the most celebrated bureaucrats and now they are gone without ever having published a manual in their field of expertise based on their years of experience. There is no substitute for experience in executing measurable deliverables.

Such a manual can be part of what we can call a ‘toolbox’ for future generations.

Failure to do this has the potential to undermine or delay our nation’s progress in future generations because instead of them running further and faster, they will be bogged down with the proverbial reinventing of the wheel!

Executively and legislatively I want to believe we are safe as the archives seem to show.

With all due respect, I honestly feel that the good intensions of our government are hampered and sometimes even undermined by an entangled bureaucracy which in my opinion, needs attention as mentioned earlier in this article, through in-service training and constant evaluation.

Allow me also to note that the political and economic development of a nation, especially in the developing world is directly impacted by the bureaucrats tasked with ensuring that the existing bureaucracy, whilst working, is constantly advancing with the ever changing times we live in.

Finally, we need more researchers and analysts to assist us with the development and forecasting of bureaucracy so that the future does not catch us off guard and the sustainability of our democracy is not threatened by putting ‘new wine into old wine skins’!

Having written what I would term a cautionary note, let it be known that it is done within the context of celebrating our collective achievements as a nation and as a country and also with the understanding that we need to attend to and improve that which needs improving in our administrative system.

God bless Namibia and her children
Apostle Marson Sharpley


The Windhoek Observer is an English-language weekly newspaper, published in Namibia by Paragon Investment Holding. It is the country's oldest and largest circulating weekly.

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