Frimpong-Boateng Episode, What the Hell was the Minister Thinking?

Thu, 1 Sep 2011 Source: Ata, Kofi

By Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK

May I crave readers’ indulgence to forgive me for the title of this article. I do not swear but I could not hide my reaction when I first heard and read about the utter disrespectful treatment given to the eminent Ghanaian and world renowned Cardiothoracic Surgeon, Prof Frimpong Boateng by no mean person than my good friend and Minister for Health, Honourable Mr Joseph Yiele Chireh. Joe, please do not take this personal because you know that I am not that type. A lot has already been said and written about the incident or calamity since last week so I do not intend to revisit the issues that have been analysed by others. My contribution to the debate is to look at the problem from a different perspective. The objective is not to shift blame or responsibility but to contribute to strengthening governance structures and accountability in Ghana.

On August 25th, I posted an article on Ghanaweb on the lackadaisical communications approach by government ministers and appointees and hoped that someone within government might have read it and avoid committing similar blunders (see “Is the Director of Communications at the Presidency Fit for Purpose” which also appeared briefly on Peacefmonline). Unfortunately, it appears either none of them pay attention to what columnists and readers post on Ghanaweb and the various electronic media or if they do, they just disregard the contents. This error is worst than just a communication problem. It’s both communication and administrative hiccups. The content of the unfortunate dismissal letter was such that it raises serious questions about the role of ministerial advisers in the person of senior civil servants and whether politicians receive advice from them and if they do, do ministers consider them before they act? I know that by law employers are not under any obligation to state the reasons for the termination of employment contract though, that could make the employer’s defence weak should the termination be challenged. Notwithstanding this, the content of the letter was unpardonable.

Having read the dismissal letter as posted on the electronic media, any experienced person who has held leadership position would have asked the following:

• Who drafted the letter?;

• Did the minster read the letter before appending his signature?;

• Did his Secretary, Personal Assistant (if any) see the letter?;

• Did the most senior civil servant in the ministry (I think in Ghana they called Chief Director) see the letter and if so, what was his advice to the minister?;

• Did the minister or anyone in his office (Personal Secretary, Personal Assistant, Chief Director, Deputy Minister, etc) consider the potential implications of the letter?;

• With the politically charged atmosphere in Ghana, particularly the tug of war between NDC and NPP, didn’t anyone envisage the pollicisation of such a letter?;

• In all honesty, did those who crafted the dismissal letter in their wildest dream believe that, that was how the Professor should be treated?; etc.

I could go on asking thousand and one questions that erupted in my empty head and in my astonishment after digesting the content of the brief dismissal letter. In my experience of dealing with human resource or personnel issues (either as advising employers, prosecuting them or hearing claims at Employment Tribunals here in the UK), I am yet to come across such a letter for an accomplished and distinguished employee. It sounded more of a letter to an employee who has been summarily dismissed for gross misconduct than an excellent public servant. My next question was, was the Head of Human Resources at the ministry consulted and if so, what his or her advice and did the minister take it?

Let me remind readers that by asking the above questions, I am not trying to absolve the Minister from blame, apportion blame or shift responsibility onto civil servants and advisers. Instead, my aim is to open up the debate on the role and effective of civil servants in the democratic dispensation in Ghana. This is important if the civil service is to become truly professional service of technocrats, independent, impartial and depoliticised, able to offer professional advice to ministers and politicians no matter what political party is in government. Most senior civil servants are technocrats and experts in their areas of operation. They have gained long service experience, served varied governments and accumulated wealth of knowledge and expertise far beyond any political appointee. Their role is among other things, to advise, support and assist ministers run ministries and the country efficiently. In fact, it would not be wrong to say that, often they are the real powers behind the scenes in democratic societies. For example, in the wake of the phone hacking scandal by the Murdoch controlled newspaper in the UK, it has been revealed by the last British Prime Minister (Right Honourable, Mr Gordon Brown, MP that he decided to establish a commission of inquiry to investigate the phone hacking but was stopped by the Cabinet Secretary, who is also the head of the UK civil service from establishing the commission. The advice he received from the Cabinet Secretary was that, his decision was too close to the general elections and it would have been seen as attacking pro opposition media. As a result the Prime Minister and one of the most powerful in the country shelved his decision.

The most senior civil servant gave his honest, independent, impartial and professional advice to his Prime Minister because he analysed the decision and evaluated the potential implications and consequences for the Prime Minster. The Prime Minister accepted it because he trusted his most senior civil servant. He remains the most senior civil servant and Cabinet Secretary to the coalition government providing advice to the current Prime Minister. Sometimes, when I hear and read that Ghanaian governments have entered into bad agreements and contracts with other governments and organisations, I ask myself, the same question. What advice, if any, did politicians receive from the technocrats or civil servants prior to signing the agreements? If senior civil servants have spent and gained many years of experience and politicians are not tapping into their knowledge, expertise, skills and experience to run the country for the benefit of Ghanaians, then, why have a civil service in the first place? Could this avoidable embarrassment have happened if the minister had sought the professional and impartial advice of the most senior civil servants in his ministry such as the Chief Director and head of Human Resources? Who knows and we may never know?

That leads me to the politicisation of the civil service and the involvement of serving civil servants in party politics. Ghana like the UK and unlike the United States operates non-politicised civil service. It means that all civil servants, including the most senior serve the government of the day. However, in Ghana governments after governments remove and replace senior civil servants who they suspect of being sympathetic to opposition parties or opposed to their ideology for fear of sabotage. The consequences of such insecurity within the upper echelons of the civil service are such that they become subservient to politicians and do as they say instead of being a critical friend to offer professional and impartial advice. It appears to me that, one of their main concerns is to secure their longevity at whatever cost and not the efficient management of the ministry. In so doing, they lose their independence and impartiality and almost become part of the party political operations. Some senior civil servants also covertly or openly express their political affiliations through their actions in breach of the civil service code of conduct. I know civil servants are also human and therefore have their personal preferences for different political parties. In fact, they vote for parties during elections but there is a difference between personal preferences and professional impartiality. The need to put the public sphere above private domain, nation above party and be professional no matter what party is in government and whatever one’s political affiliation is lost. These are some of issues that must be debated as part of the current debate emanating from the episode.

The handling of the termination is not only an indictment on the Minister but also the effectiveness of his senior civil servants. If the senior civil servants, especially the Chief Director and the head of Human Resources were not consulted and did not see the abysmal dismissal letter, then, they are ineffective, inefficient and irrelevant in the ministry. They must and should open their ears and eyes and get actively involved in the major policy and operational decisions of the ministry. If the Minister did not consult his senior civil servants on his approach, the he is under utilising the expertise and professional resources at his disposal. For politicians and civil servants to work in synergy to develop, implement and deliver government programmes, the air of mistrusts and suspicion on both sides should give way to confidence in each other and collaboration in the spirit of team work. To achieve this harmony, politicians should stop interfering with senior civil servants appointments and allow them to be professional, independent and impartial in the service of Ghana

Again, the apparent lack of analysis and evaluation of the potential consequences of the decision should also be a matter of concern and set alarm bells ringing. Being in leadership in a small organisation is not easy, let alone, a ministry. That is why there are senior civil servants, advisers and assistants to support leaders. In my experience, major policy decisions are analysed for their short, medium and long term implications prior to implementation. In organisations where I have held leadership and management roles, all major decisions are analysed and evaluated for both potential positive and negative implications and when negative, appropriate remedial actions and alternative solutions are identified and acted upon. For example, most policy papers and decisions prepared by civil servants or senior officers for politicians or management approval always or often come with a warning on financial, social, environmental and sometimes political implications (depending on the type of organisation or work) with recommendations on how to address them. In conclusion the senior civil servants must assess their roles in supporting the ministers and the minsters should also consider how best they can tap the skills of their senior civil servants. My good friend, Joe erred but can politicians and senior civil servants learn any lessons from his error and omission?

By Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK

Columnist: Ata, Kofi