Governments must cultivate a culture of kindness and …

(Photo: Unsplash / Randalyn Hill)

The reason government reforms often don’t work is that the cultures in which they are applied neither encourage nor reward compassion – a key value of service delivery. Until people can develop a commitment to the well-being of others, especially those afflicted by poverty, the world will continue to be a difficult place.

“A nation is not great in size alone. It is the will, the cohesion, the endurance, the discipline of its people and the quality of its leaders that ensure it an honorable place in history. – Lee Kuan Yew, The Spirit and Wisdom of Lee Kuan Yew, 2013.

Across the continent, glaring gaps in governance have led to populations largely disillusioned with formal systems of government and their meager attempts to create better living conditions. Today, around 200 million people live in slums, 490 million live in extreme poverty, and over 300 million people over the age of 15 cannot read or write. In addition, the social pact between government and citizens is strained; only one in three people (38%) surveyed by Afrobarometer say their government is managing the economy well.

A state cannot continue to function legitimately for long if its people do not believe that they are capable of dealing with the most pressing problems facing society.

Governments, unfortunately, have been unable to understand that if they are to improve people’s living standards in any meaningful and sustainable way, they must prioritize investing in their people and providing environments for them to thrive. This includes visualization of health, housing and education as social and economic investments essential for development and rethinking the relationship with government and citizens.

The goal of development is to improve the quality of people’s lives, after all.

And while there are many ways to address this issue, an often overlooked area for improvement is the lack of a culture of service delivery and a deep commitment to popular welfare within government.

For many, a visit – or any interaction – with government offices can be painful. Nonchalance, dragging their feet, passive aggression, and nagging conversations are some of the nicest words to describe such experiences. And it’s not just about integrating technology into service delivery to bypass humans, although that helps too, but rather finding ways to instill the types of habits that promote service delivery.

How? ‘Or’ What? The answer may lie in rebuilding institutions of governance based on Do better by people (show kindness, empathy and dignity), emphasizing technocratic expertise and a meritocratic culture.

In East Asia, a competitive tradition of institutional meritocracy exists where officials in countries undergo rigorous examinations where only the best and brightest are selected. Speaking on the Singaporean narrative in 2005, Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister of Singapore, said Singapore’s success “has come from its expert rule system, focused on meritocratic talent and long-term thinking.” A system that “protected civil servants from political interference, [giving them] the space to find rational and effective solutions to our problems [so they can] practice public administration in quasi-laboratory conditions ”. A reality rooted in getting the basics right.

In the book, Asian aspirationFormer Deputy Prime Minister and Senior Minister of Singapore Tharman Shanmugaratnam said in an interview that “education is our most important economic and social strategy”. He added that “from the early days the paradox was that we depoliticized the substance of education, but we took great political interest in creating an ethic of performance and empowerment in doing so.”

It’s the story of how Singapore was able to overtake its colonial ruler, Britain, in per capita income just four decades after the island gained independence. Today, Singapore is reaping the benefits of this work. Its educational achievements are among the highest in the world, as evidenced by its best performance in the international study of mathematics and science.

Changing the status quo requires focusing on what the government does and, most importantly, the government body itself: who does what and why? Careful examination will reveal the human entities whose day-to-day practices color service delivery and thus define governance.

In Scotland, the Carnegie Trust UK investigated the role of benevolence in government and how “infrastructure of benevolence” can be included in the National Performance Framework. This line of inquiry recognizes that the overall quality of the system is influenced by the quality of human interactions within and beyond organizational structures: between staff and between staff and other stakeholders (people who use government services). This quality, research shows, requires a stronger focus on building trust, collaboration, compassion, empathy, mutual understanding and continuous learning.

It is rare that when there is a poorly managed or dysfunctional government, officials do not know what a well-functioning government looks like. They are bombarded with advice and models of international good practice, the most effective management and information systems, etc. The reason reforms often don’t work is that the cultures in which they are applied neither encourage nor reward compassion – a key value of service delivery. And in its absence, it is not in the interest of those in charge to see them implemented because they benefit from the existing dysfunction.

Until people can develop a commitment to the well-being of others, especially those mired in the throes of poverty and the challenges that come with it, the world will continue to be a difficult place.

African leaders and the institutions they lead need to rethink the way governance systems are organized, how the people operating within them understand their role and that of the state apparatus, and how their day-to-day actions, or the absence of, have an impact on the overall development objective.

Understanding this is not the end of the process, but simply, and only if successful, the beginning of a reallocation of resources to solve the most fundamental problems and the creation of a competent government apparatus motivated to execute its plans. . SM / MC

Marie-Noelle Nwokolo is part of the Johannesburg-based group Brenthurst Foundation.

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