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Public sector agencies should do their work to earn public adoration

Thursday December 14 2017

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A few people who read the blog posts published here have met and asked to know what grudge I have against one department of the public sector or the other. The question goes, “Would you be able to work at all if someone kept trying to make your errors visible to everyone?”

I am unsure that I would remain calm but the crucial difference is that public sector institutions should not have the luxury of having praise singers among citizens.

It looks sensible to state that Kenyans must give public sector institutions the benefit of the doubt and maintain respect and trust even if the decisions that are taken are not popular.

Except that the decision to offer upfront and unfailing respect to any institution and individual working in the public sector is an option. There is neither a legal nor moral imperative to suspend criticism of institutions that spend public resources and hold enormous power that affects the lives of citizens.


By virtue of these privileges to institutions and the individuals who take decisions within them, any call to let public institutions and executive offices to do their work without criticism is preposterous. Many citizens are not bothered to express differing opinions and to ask public sector departments to justify their actions and even existence but that does not mean that others should not.

This recent demand by the Executive branch of government and Parliament for public respect for the institutions betrays their sense of entitlement. To begin with, any person who considers it a privilege to work for millions of Kenyans should be sufficiently self-assured.

This means that they ought to know that they bear obligations towards the citizens of Kenya and are often rewarded well for that. It is illogical therefore to state that institutions will perform duties well only if they are assured of praise with no questions about performance. That claim is a sign of insecurity and not one of people sure that they will do their best and have public respect flow from that outcome.


The one sure way in which an institution gets and retains the respect of the citizen is by its performance. It is a form of revelation to have to argue that public respect must precede any evidence that an institution, whether a regulator such as the Communications Authority, the Central Bank of Kenya or a commission such as the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, is doing its work. In spite of broad ignorance of the detailed charters of each of these institutions, many keen individuals are able to see beyond their advertisement and detect whether they are doing well or not.

For instance, many Kenyans have an inkling of what the Office of the Auditor-General (OAG) does. And without doubt, this office provides accurate reports on the state of public expenditure and revenues that nobody but the most ignorant sycophants have once questioned.

Due to the self-imposed weaknesses of the legislature, this institution doesn’t get as much public approbation as is due to it and yet it provides reports of unimpeachable quality again and again. It’s all fine that none of the officers from this institution makes the national honours list, but nobody with the ability to read and interpret data doubts the class and poise of most of its officers.

Needless to state, the OAG has respect among professionals and that’s not to state that there are no creases to be ironed out within the structure. The point is that notwithstanding the underfunding that it receives relative to other commissions such as the IEBC and peer underperformers, its work stands out. The lesson of this rare institution in the hall of thousands of State departments is that a good institution’s reputation is self-evident.


Evidently, the institutions that try too hard to be loved by Kenyan citizens do so because they are mistaken about how to gain that rank. Any observer can tell that the OAG has not chosen to spend massive budgets on sophisticated communications but it still ranks highly for its work in the critical audit functions.

The ideal situation would be that citizens would be enamoured of all the public institutions and departments. The truth, however, is that numerous public institutions that feel no admiration from Kenyans and have to harangue citizens are unloved for the reason that they do not do their work well and transparently.

Thus Kenyans are responding to the fact that public services are not of a sufficiently high quality to merit adoration. The public sector would do well to remember that they cannot buy nor demand public admiration. You have to earn it.

Kwame Owino is the chief executive officer of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA-Kenya), a public policy think tank based in Nairobi. Twitter: @IEAKwame