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Opinions of Saturday, 14 February 2004

Columnist: Banful, Ebenezer

A Non-Political Civil Service: MYTH OR REALITY

In recent months there have been growing calls for various institutions in the country to be non-partisan. Dr Alex Glover-Quartey, Head of Civil Service, has urged civil servants to be non-partisan, especially during this election year. He urged them [to] exhibit selflessness and render loyal service to the nation (Ghanaweb Jan 3 2004). A similar call has been made by Mr. Anaclatens Fakoo Dorzie, Nkoranza District Coordinating Director. Nana Asiama Poku-Afrifa II, chief of Toase, near Nkawie in the Atwima district, has also advised his traditional rulers to stay out of partisan politics and to be as politically neutral as possible (Ghanaweb 9 Feb). The Armed Forces Personnel have also been advised to avoid partisan politics. The call for a non-political civil service is not new. It is made every time elections are approaching. It is therefore important to examine whether it is possible for a non-partisan civil service to exist in Ghana.

The civil service as we have it now is a replica of the colonial system. The colonial masters introduced the system to help with their administration. At that time, its role was the maintenance of law and order. It was a politically disinterested and permanent civil service with core values of integrity, propriety, objectivity and appointment on merit, able to transfer its loyalty and expertise from one elected government to the next. Since independence the civil service in Ghana has gone through numerous reforms but has largely stuck with the bureaucratic structure set up by the colonial masters. However, the core values of integrity, propriety and appointment on merit have largely disappeared.

The civil service as the administrative arm of government is there to provide high quality advice and provide support for both the government of the day and the Parliament and play a major role in the legislative process. The civil service is supposed to faithfully carry out the policies of the Government of the day irrespective of that Government's political complexion. At the same time it is expected to maintain its independence. The Westminster system is based on the idea that ministers come and go, but the civil service is a constant. In this respect the advice given by civil servants is supposed to be given fearlessly and impartially. In theory, civil servants do not work for a particular political party?s interest but for the public. Political neutrality is therefore the bedrock of most civil services. However, it appears that the nature of our constitutional arrangements makes it difficult to maintain a non-political civil service. The politicisation of the civil service in Ghana and indeed in most western democratic countries can be found in the constitutional structure which provides for both separation of powers and checks and balances. The civil service reports to the executive but also has strong linkages with the legislature because of the latter's appropriation function and the fact that Ministers are also in Parliament. There are also limits placed on what information civil servants can give to the political opposition. It may be argued that this is done to protect the government of the day and that civil servants have the convention of Ministerial responsibility to safeguard them from blame. The convention of Ministerial responsibility covers such things as policy errors, mishandling of policies and personal conduct. While it may be true that the purpose of the convention is to protect civil servants, it appears to me that the convention has become diluted and politicised because ministers are reluctant to accept responsibility for the failing of their ministries. Usually what happens is that if a ministerial mistake or misappropriation is brought to the attention of a minister, he/she usually denies any foreknowledge thereby throwing out of the window the principle of ministerial responsibility. The maintenance of the neutrality of the civil service further becomes difficult with the employment of politically appointed special assistants/advisers. These appointments contain potential to undermine the independence of the civil service. In most cases these appointees tend to be on higher salaries and appear to be enjoying privileges that are not available to other civil servants. Whether you like it or not there can be a damaging perception that there is one law for special assistants/advisers and one law for the rest.

The gap between the traditional theory of a career civil service and the reality on the ground needs to be bridged. In my view it is still possible for the civil service to maintain its political neutrality. To achieve this, however, requires a legal separation of functions of politicians (who decide policies) from those of civil servants (who implement such policies). This also means that we should limit the number of politicians on public sector boards of government businesses and corporations. In some cases their presence on such boards may raise issues of conflict of interest. It is also of paramount importance that Ministers accept their responsibilities as Ministers and give accurate and truthful account to Parliament and the people, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. There are many Parliamentarian and some Ministers who have abused their offices or misled Parliament and should have either resigned, been dismissed or sacked but are still holding on to their positions. The government must realise that democracy is more than just voting in elections ? it is also about government accountability, ministerial responsibility and transparency.

The government needs to establish a system that allows civil servants to impartially perform their duties, independent from powerful political parties or from fear of being dismissed by an incoming government eg Apollo 568 --Sallah case of 1971) or being victimised for taking a non political stand to a policy proposal. In the advanced democracies some political opposition to government policy is tolerated but this seem not to be the case in Ghana where it is a case of if you are not with us then you are against us. There is anecdotal evidence that many people in the civil service or some government business enterprises who were of a different political persuasion from the present government lost their positions merely because of their political affiliation. Whether this is true or not the perception can be damaging to the maintenance of a professional, non-political civil service.

It takes two hands to clap so civil servants must also play their part in maintaining the neutrality of the civil service. Civil servants should realise that they are there to provide continuity in government business and so leave political decisions to politicians and provide advice without fear or favour. The civil service should also take responsibility for its failings and must be seen to be politically neutral. This neutrality will be demonstrated and maintained if civil servants, especially those who hold high offices in the service, refrain from active participation in politics. They should not attend political rallies nor should they be seen wearing party colours. They should as much as possible not openly support the policies or pronouncements of a particular political party. When civil servants openly participate in political activities they compromise the neutrality of their offices and put themselves at risk of losing their jobs if the political party they openly support fail to win office. Dr Glover-Quartey is making some welcome progress towards explaining the vision of the civil service but I am yet to see a coherent framework for action. The civil service ethos needs to be renewed, nourished, cultivated and strengthened to meet the society's aspirations for its civil service. It should include the standards to be reached in ethical behaviour, service delivery, administrative competence and democratic accountability. The civil service core values of integrity, propriety and appointment on merit must not only be promoted it must be put in practice. I wait with bated breath.


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