Why mediocrity is valued and rewarded in the public service

Wednesday November 20 2019

Everything on earth exists for a purpose” goes the saying. “None is so useless as to serve no purpose. Some of it may even be a warning,” goes another.

Of course these sayings and others of a similar bent raise interesting philosophical questions, like what the purpose of a mosquito or a sloth is.


The smart guys of science assure us that nothing, whether this is an animal or a body part, survives for long if it does not serve a purpose. Use or lose it is the name of the game.

But what is the purpose of mediocrity? It seems to have survived rather comfortably throughout human history. A visit to the nearest government office reveals that mediocrity, that ancient of vices, is in excellent health here in Kenya.

Before Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i’s recent reforms, I had the unpleasant task of visiting the Civil Registry at Bishop’s House to get a certificate. It went entirely as expected; it took four visits on different days, I was directed to three counters, the staff were totally unhelpful and it was a most painful and inefficient process. I hear that things have changed.


While there, I happened to notice a printout of a quote by the American civil rights icon, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr,, posted on a counter. It exhorted its readers to perform their tasks as if they were Michelangelo, Beethoven and the other geniuses of Western arts. Sadly, the officer remained unmoved by such exhortations and was committed to delivering the most mediocre and lacklustre of services.


Having interacted with more public offices than I’d otherwise want to, this experience is the norm. And it cannot change until we determine what incentivises civil servants to display such levels of mediocrity without feeling any shame.

Policymakers and others who are interested in fighting wastage, inefficiency and corruption in the public sector would do well to determine what purpose mediocrity serves.

In his book, Codes of the Underworld, Diego Gambetta presents three counter-intuitive theories to explain the paradox.

The first is that many civil servants get hired through cronyism. To attract and retain the favours of their godfathers, they engage in very public incompetence as a way of showing their attractiveness and secure their job.


Incompetence signals to the godfather that “I can’t leave because I wouldn’t survive elsewhere”. It also says, “I’m too unskilled to be a threat to your job”. Even an otherwise skilled individual will have to signal mediocrity to be selected and to survive in their position.

Secondly, these godfathers also select for mediocrity. Non-mediocre candidates do not get jobs because they will not be grateful to their benefactor. They will always feel entitled to their positions as a result of innate skill and ability. The more grateful the candidate, the more loyal they are.

It makes sense to hire a mediocre subordinate if the godfather wants a coterie of loyal automatons. Even if these turn out to be disloyal and ungrateful, they will have no option anyway.


Thirdly, it is also a way of flaunting power. The Roman emperor appointed his horse a senator, after all. Selecting the unsuitable communicates that one is so powerful that they can appoint anyone and anything into a position of influence.

In the world of organised crime, criminals often have to feign total ignorance in everything other than their criminal speciality so as to attract the attention and trust of potential collaborators. Visible incompetence signals that the criminal cannot double-cross his partners even if he wanted. The same thinking could influence civil servants who want to attract bribes and involvement in other collusive activities.

In such an environment, a policy of retraining, capacity building and assorted inducements to motivate public officers to perform their tasks more competently will fail. They are simply not aligned with the officer’s interests.


Other ideas, such as establishing minimum daily output by each officer and, therefore, provide them with an excuse to actually do their jobs without offending their superiors, might work.

Mr Kuria specialises in anti-financial crime. [email protected]