It’s time Governments show commitment to the business of government through their appointments

This post is a re-posting of an update on Facebook by Bright Simons one of the very few and limited personalities I respect and pay attention to. I found it relevant to re-post this because I share the sentiments he expresses in the subject being discussed. For example here in Ghana we find ourselves mostly in situations where deputy ministers dont act as the substantive ministers when the substantive minister travels or for whatever reason the substantive minister can not perform his/her duties. Instead the president do some tentative juggling around of ministers, mostly making assign additional ministerial portfolios to ministers who already have portfolios they are managing. I ask myself why this should be the case. Really what is the point of appointing a deputy minister if he or she cannot act in the absence of the substantive minister. Here in this post I share, Bright Simons’ perspective and recommendation on this subject matter.

An interesting debate that has been boiling in Ghana is the criteria for appointing Ministers of State and Deputy Ministers of State. I will admit that my thoughts are still a bit scattered on this subject, and there have been many persuasive arguments on all sides of the debate. But suddenly, I feel as if I have made some progress in my own mind about the matter. I have now come to the view that whatever criteria you use, you can’t run away from the need for ‘management competence’ and an understanding of how the ‘policymaking process’ itself (not necessary a certain field like ‘health’, ‘agric’, ‘education’ etc) works in Ghana. Who are the key actors, what are the key constraints, and what are its norms and realpolitik. The reason is simple: all the agencies and civil servants in a sector REPORT TO THE MINISTERIAL TEAM. This radically settles many of the ambiguities in the matter. It makes it somewhat easier to use an analogy from management practice and theory.

Ministers of State Swearing in ceremony
Ministers Swearing at the Seat of Government in Accra, Ghana. 2013

The role of a Minister and his or her deputy is akin to that of a CEO, and NOT to that of a Chairman of a Board. He/She is, standing in for the President, directly responsible for accounting to shareholders (voters) for the return on national assets. The Ministerial team is expected to maximise returns by managing not only the nation’s assets but also the talent of the management team of that sector (heads of agencies and technical and operational teams at the Ministries). I don’t see how this can be done without considerable management capacity.

To ground this view, we may ask whether this same perspective might apply in a very different but comparative setting, say Britain. I think probably not to the same extent, since they practice ‘cabinet government‘ to its full extent. In that sense Ministers in advising the Crown on the political implications of the conduct of the officers of the sovereign’s Government, which is practically Whitehall, act more collectively. The roles of Ministers CAN thus be seen as less operational and more advisory than is the case in Ghana. But even in Britain, Secretaries of State take responsibility for the operational execution of policy. In America, where the executive branch functions more closely like ours, management competence appears to be very critical, and congress in examining nominees appear to place a great store on this.

The question is to what extent Ministerial responsibility implies critical decision-making about the operational choices and actions of the implementing team at the head of the sector in question, be it health, agric, trade or education, and how political accountability can be possible without Ministerial responsibility for strategy, vision, and the measurement of outcomes. It seems to me that the CEO analogy settles the matter in its essential respects.