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Feature Article of Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Columnist: Gyan-Apenteng, Kwasi

The Case for Special “Castle Ministers” for Change

Kwasi Gyan-Apenteng

Political analysts and commentators have been unanimous on one thing about the 2012 election; they all say the campaign was fought on “the issues”. Translation: instead of concentrating solely on who is short, who is unwell, who sleeps with whom and who comes from where and speaks which language, the politicians talked about health, education and that sort of thing. That verdict is both true and false. While it is true that the media focused to a greater extent than usual on the “issues”, details were lacking and political promises focused commonly on infrastructure at the expense of real policy prescriptions. This may be due to the fact that citizens mostly express their expectations in terms of number of schools and hospitals instead of quality issues, but that is no reason why political parties must do the same.
In Ghana, party manifestos usually are works of creative fantasy layered with a thin crust of fact, which is why on assuming office parties tend to dump the more encouraging promises and stick to the same old habits to which they are accustomed. Instead of coming up with new ideas for tackling old and new problems governments like to talk about infrastructure, which is a safe haven because it can create countable units of things – buildings, bridges, and roads – to which the man and woman in the street can relate as the main measure of progress and success.
Currently the media and public have focused their attention of appointments the President has made with a measure of fascination and some confusion due to some novel ideas. For example, President Mahama has appointed a number of his party members, some with previous ministerial experience to superintend different aspects of his government’s work, including the construction of various infrastructural projects during the current presidential term. It was the appointment of Albin Bagbin, Cletus Avoka and E.T. Mensah, collectively dubbed the “Three Wise Men” to oversee the establishment of 200 Senior High Schools, 10 Training Colleges, a University in the Eastern Region, and construction of international and Regional airports that a howl of protest. The critics are either against the principle of appointing such “extracurricular” ministers or appointing other people to do work that should be routine for ministries and agencies already existing and budgeted for in the current expenditure plan.
I have a lot of sympathy for the President; he should be able to create new positions that emphasise areas that are priority for his administration. This is common to all governments around the world, and in that sense one can understand the political and psychological signaling the President has sought to create with the appointment of several Castle Ministers in the government. However, while these appointments may help the President to achieve his aims, they represent a risk due to the possibility of infighting and conflicts between ministers heading REAL ministries and the new breed of “Castle ministers” responsible for bits and pieces of matters that are traditionally within the domain of regular ministers.
So, although the principle of assigning ministerial or special assistant status to trusted people in government is well established such appointments are usually allocated to areas that require innovation and coordination across several government departments and agencies. In some cases these special focuses are meant to respond to new and emerging trends to old and new problems. In Ghana today, one would expect that such treatment would be given to some of the most intractable cross-cutting challenges in our nation and for which no specific ministries are traditionally assigned.
Let me give one example beginning with a question: if you were to ask Ghanaians which issue bothers them most in their daily lives I have no doubt that the word “discipline” would feature close to the very top. And yet the last time a diffident effort was undertaken to make discipline an official issue was in the early months of the Kufuor administration when the late Alhaji Aliu Mahama made the issue something of a personal crusade. It did not persist for long, I suspect because the administration had not mechanism to handle such a broad issue which had neither a specific agency nor budget to support it. What about a minister of state responsible for coordinating government efforts at instilling discipline in the country. That office would be responsible for coordinating work across several departments and initiatives which cannot be dealt with by one department. Furthermore, since the outcome of the work of such an office cannot be quantified by counting roads and buildings it would call for more fine-tuning of government work to include important benchmarks that may be missing in the ordinary scheme of things.
Another example is technology. There is a Ministry of Science and Technology but technology is so wide and all-encompassing that to clasp it in the embrace of one ministry is possibly the surest disservice to this most vital sector. Technology and innovation are required across government and society in the most profound way; it is required in finance and economy, communication, security, education, health, the environment, agriculture, labour, social welfare…; it is a long list. Without technology no country or society can survive in the world at any stage, but the challenge is greater now than at any point in our history because of the almost total dependence on technology for almost whatever we do.
The President is within his right to appoint these extra-curricular ministers since the case for such an innovative approach has been established but the strategy has to be limited to truly cross-cutting issues to avoid duplication in the work of the government. The truth is there can be no change without innovating in the way government work is carried out. Thus creating new special offices might result in freeing a lot of the work from the sheer inertia of civil service procedures. Another reason might be to keep the President briefed constantly on the details of his pet projects or the areas reserved for special supervision by the battery of powerful advisers. Whether this high stakes gamble will pay off will only be known in the future.
SHELF LIFE
For reasons that do not need to be stated my book for this week has been the excellent compilation of football history, "The Complete History of Ghana Football League: 1958-2012" written by veteran sportswriter Ken Bediako, former Sports Editor of the Daily Graphic. The book is a joy to have around while watching the contemporary Ghanaian kickers of the leathery globe strutting their stuff and making us proud (so far) in South Africa.
If you love sports, not just football, you will love this book which was launched last October and now available at Silverbird Bookstore at Accra Mall and other leading bookstores in the country.
As one reviewer wrote, “the book chronicles the careers of Ghana’s footballers and clubs and highlights some funny bits of history too. A veteran sports journalist, Ken Bediako is one of those men who can be described as being "around forever…” The Minister of Information Fritz Baffour praised the author at the launch saying, “documentation such as this provides a written account of activities as they happened. Books like Ken Bediako's are places to go when time has passed and memory fails even the best of current journalists. Ken Bediako's book is a concise, yet comprehensive compilation of the body of knowledge that's been left unkempt by all of us.

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