Can business concepts improve public service delivery in Rwanda?

AS a society, we trust the police to keep law and order, to deter crime, and to come to our rescue when needed. Similarly, when we are in poor health, we are inclined to call upon our doctors and hospitals to treat us and return us to normal life.

AS a society, we trust the police to keep law and order, to deter crime, and to come to our rescue when needed. Similarly, when we are in poor health, we are inclined to call upon our doctors and hospitals to treat us and return us to normal life.

Equally, when we take our children to school, we look to teachers to pass on to them the best of available knowledge in an environment that is stimulating, safe and inspiring. We also depend on our roads and sidewalks to get around. As decent taxpayers, we expect all these vital public services to be available when we need them.

That said, although public services in Rwanda are arguably better than in most African countries, one can still argue that significant deficiencies remain. Many a time, certain services are not delivered to the highest standards as expected by hardworking taxpayers, and more often than not, the process of lodging a complaint initiates a long process of having to write letters or make phone calls with no guarantee of a positive outcome.

In fact, this observation is backed by the current week long effort by the Ministry of Local Government and other actors to monitor and build awareness of the need to improve the delivery of public services in Rwanda.

However, let us take a step back and look at how in the 1980s several OECD countries applied business concepts in the public sector to change and improve the way services are delivered. We need to ask ourselves: Who is responsible for delivering a business service, and what inspires them to provide a good service? To answer these questions, we take an example of a business manager who is the representative of a company responsible for delivering a service.

A business manager is fully responsible for the process of delivering a specific service to customers. Thus, to ensure that a service is provided to the highest of standards, a business manager hires the best available workforce to guarantee that customers receive the best service.

Equally, it is the manager’s responsibility to make sure that when things go wrong, as they often do, staff members are well trained and equipped to deal with the matter at hand so that service disruption is kept to a minimum. A business manager invests all their time and effort in a business because they either own it or their financial rewards are directly responsive to the profits/losses of the company.

Of course, the public sector is different in nature. Many public managers have no direct power to hire or fire employees, and there is no profit/loss to be made in the public sector. However, in the 1980s, when public services were deemed inefficient in several OECD countries, New Public Management (NPM henceforth) reforms were put forward as a viable solution.

Pollitt and Bouckaert (2011) observed NPM as a general theory or doctrine whereby the public sector can be improved by the importation of business concepts, techniques and values. In addition, the two scholars stated that NPM contained a bundle of specific concepts and practices, intended to improve public sector performance while using competition strategies that are designed to be more responsive to the needs of service users.

NPM business concepts

Hands-on professional management: According to a prominent professor of Government, Christopher Hood (1991), if governments want a clear efficient management of public sector institutions, then civil servants in leading roles must act as managers by heavily involving themselves in identifying problems and finding solutions accordingly.

This concept calls for civil servants to be willing to roll up their sleeves and lead by example rather than delegate. When this happens, junior staff members are often inclined to follow the lead and perform better.

Explicit standards and measures of performance: Similarly, Christopher Hood (1991) insists that “accountability requires clear statement of goals; efficiency requires hard look at objectives”. As shown earlier, a private manager is motivated by financial rewards often attached to clear goals set by the company.

When such goals are achieved, the manager is rewarded accordingly. When they are not, the private manager takes home fewer rewards. In view of this, NPM advocates insist that public managers should have clear goals to facilitate the process of having their financial rewards tied directly to their performance in delivering specific services, rather than the standard monthly salary that is accorded to a public manager without taking into account what has and hasn’t been achieved.

NPM reforms in several countries, including the UK, US, Canada and Australia, have continued to facilitate the public sector to use private sector business concepts to improve the delivery of public services. If public service delivery in Rwanda is to significantly improve, then we must be able to adapt to change.

Public sector performance should be led by active hands-on public managers who are rewarded to reflect their results and not their role. Explicit standards should be set to allow senior managers to have frank discussions about poor performances. In addition, independent performance surveys can also be adopted in public establishments to rate the quality of service that is provided.

The writer is a UK Parliamentary Intern and holds a Master of Science in Public Service Policy.

Twitter: @Jsabex

 

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