Forgive a public servant who delivers a quality product even if he violated 100% procedural rules but punish one who follows every rule and gives a bad product.In this column last week, I argued that the various institutions mandated to exercise oversight functions on the executive actually tend to do the opposite – encourage more corruption. This is especially so in public procurement where institutions like the Auditor General’s office, the Inspectorate of Government, parliamentary oversight committees and the mass media are supposed to hold public officials to account.
Whenever there is a big public procurement scandal, all these institutions jump into the fray with investigations. Hearings are held, witnesses summoned and grilled before excited journalists and reports are issued. Newspapers make headlines, television and radio talk-shows get super saturated with arguments in favour or against the accused. Civil society organisations call press conferences and sometimes organise demonstrations.
On the face of it, all this seems to be a sign of vibrant civic life in the country – and in a way it is. However, it also disguises a fundamental political pathology in Uganda i.e. that actually most of this debate is not so much aimed at holding government to account as it is aimed at increasing the number and price of bribes paid. Every institution seeks to leverage its constitutional powers to make bidders to appear before it in order to extract bribes from them. This way, graft in Uganda has been democratised.
This lesson sank into me during my work as an investigative reporter on public procurement in Uganda during the late 1990s. I noticed that every time there was a big public procurement deal, different institutions got deeply involved in investigating whether it “followed the right procedures.” Initially, like all other Ugandans, I was excited by the heated contests over procurement mistaking them to be a democratic way through which these institutions were seeking to hold government to account.
With time, however, I realised that quite often (if not always) these contests were the very instrument influential groups in our nation’s body politic were using to capture the state and then divert public resources to serve private purposes. Previously the most ardent supporter of these “anti corruption” efforts, by 2002, I had become their strongest critic rejecting almost every attempt to investigate corruption – not just as a sham – but also as its very manifestation.
However, my article last week ended prematurely because it did not propose an alternative. My view is that public management in Uganda needs to shift away from its current obsession with inputs (procedures) and place greater emphasis on outputs (results). Let me make myself clear: I am not against “all” procedure in public procurement. Even Independent Publications Limited has such rules. However, I am against a system where procedures are an end in themselves.
The problem with most discussions on practically everything in Uganda (and indeed all of Africa) is that it does not begin with our context in order to drive the debate towards a solution. Although the problem will be local, the solution will be an imported institutional model from Western Europe or North America. Many people assume that because such an institutional model has worked well in its mother country, it can be transplanted unto our society and it produces similar results.
This copy and paste approach ignores the traditions, norms, values, beliefs, habits, shared cultural understandings and political struggles that produced such a system and therefore contributed to its success in the country of origin but which may be missing in Uganda. Thus, if you superimpose institutional models on a society with different social dynamics they can actually produce the opposite result.
Many public spirited Ugandans genuinely (but naively) believe that institutions like the IGG, Auditor General, parliament and the press actually serve the purposes that are officially stated in statutes creating them or theoretically articulated in political science books. This belief is strong precisely because all too often we do not question received wisdom. Our education system teaches us to memorise ideas, not to critique them. Consequently, there is an almost total disregard of learning by empirical observation.
Almost every Ugandan I have discussed this with, including my very brilliant internet friend Omeros, keeps stating and restating the theoretically stated objective of our inherited institutions. And of course in western countries there is some degree of consistence between the theory and practice of institutional innovations largely because they evolved organically from their experience.
My frustration, however, is that few people in Uganda (and Africa) actually focus on what these inherited institutional models are delivering in our countries – whether the practice lives up to the theory. Indeed, because the practice is often inconsistent with the theory, we turn the debate into a moral argument i.e. that we have bad leaders who are not respecting institutional rules. We forget that institutional models create specific incentives for actors. Depending on the social context, “good” institutions can deliver bad outcomes. An institution is good only relative to its social context i.e. how it interacts with other variables in society.
Indeed, from my empirical observation of how the public procurement system in Uganda works, I have realised that procedures cannot stop anyone from theft if public officials want to. On the contrary, procedures in our specific context create many opportunities for corruption. A civil servant can use procedures to delay the payment of a supplier, thus inducing the supplier to bribe him in order to quicken the process.
One of the pathologies produced by a mindless adherence to procedure is the Northern Bypass. It is only 21km long yet it lasted seven years to build and three times the comparable price with similar projects elsewhere and is shoddy work. Yet all procedures were followed. So no one has been punished for this failure.
Lesson: we should be clear about the quality of the road we want, the average price of constructing it and the timeframe for finishing it. If a public servant delivers the right quality at the best cost within the best timeframe, he should be forgiven even if he violated 100 procedural rules in the procurement book. We should equally punish a public servant who follows every procedure to the book and delivers a bad road, at a high price and over an unnecessarily long period of time.