What do we do about political interference?

What do we do about political interference?

The question invariably comes up – and I simply wait patiently until it does.
What do we do but political interference?
It is a big question. It is a big question in public sector entities. It is a big question in the public sector in all of the countries I have worked in throughout sub-Saharan Africa. In actual fact, it is the ‘elephant in the room’ – a metaphor pertinent to our continent and region.
I have some thoughts on this – and have engaged in numerous very heated, and sometimes productive, debates around this particular issue. To start with some positioning statement/thoughts/opinions (these are mainly aimed at the public sector but could be of interest anywhere)
  • Political interference is a given where there is a misunderstanding between power and authority!
  • This misunderstanding is a symptom of a much bigger issue – this being the immaturity of political structures and the resultant lack of separation in most politicians minds between ruling and governing.
  • Ruling is what you get (hopefully) through the ballot box – governing is what you need to do to ensure that you can deliver the host of political promises that (again hopefully) are the reason you got voted into your position of rulership.
  • Rulership has to do with political power – and political power is NOT the same thing as authority. Authority is what people are given in order to carry out a specific mandate – authority is normally given these people through a legal framework which balances the authority given with robust accountability for the delivery of the specific mandate. Power is what I control driving my 3-tonne vehicle down the highway – authority is what the 65kg police-woman exercises when she compels me to stop. Power has to be subject to, or at least closely aligned with authority for it to be exercised well.
  • The excercise of both power and authority for the wrong purpose is another symptom of an immature political system and it’s strucutres.
  • Flowing from this is a wrong perception of what the public sector exists to do – it’s fundamental purpose.
  • The public sector exists to serve the country or nation – hence the terms public servants. Hence the term ‘minister’ which at root is simply another word for servant. These servants exist to meet the needs of others – the others are the public.
  • Immature political systems confer too much, and the wrong, status and privilege onto its public servants. Immature political systems see the people in its structures as ‘ruling over’ instead of ‘ serving under’ The rest of the nation or country. They see their purpose as being to ‘lord it over people’ instead of s eyeing their purpose flowing from their ‘serving the needs of the people’
  • In immature political systems the person in charge (president or prime minister) see themselves as the one at the ‘top’ instead of the one at the ‘bottom’.
So in the light of this how does one combat/fight/prevent/manage political interference
  • Understand ones position clearly in terms of both (1) the mandate of the organisation which you serve (2) the legal requirements of our role (as a director or decision maker in the vast majority of countries the legal responsibility of the individual a director and governing body on which they serve has as it’s first legal responsibility to the entity and not primarily to the ‘appointing party’. Directors a cross all contexts do not exist to simply represent the interests of the party that appointed them – they are legally obliged/enquired to act in the best interests of the entity.)
  • Stand together in this stance – political interference runs riot where a board or governing body is divided in their understanding of their role and responsibilities (as outlined above)
  • Engage appropriately – the fact remains that the party exerting the political interference is a stakeholder of or in the entity,  as such their interests do need to be taken into account. But as a stakeholder they do not have ‘instructing power’ – they need to be engaged (communicated with, managed, consulted and involved) in decision making as is appropriate – through the appropriate channels.
  • Engage through the right channels – these would normally be spelled out in enabling legislation, if this is not clear then an initial conversation should be held to ‘set the ground rules’ for this engagement. This is also necessary where enabling legislation exists to clarify the ‘how’ of the engagement.
  • Develop a clear engagement strategy, including how often, when and who is responsible for the engagement – along with what is expected from a reporting and feedback perspective. This should be done as a board or governing body and should reflect the assumed ‘arms length’ relationship with the ‘political’ stakeholder.
  • Be clear on clarifying expectations specifically and objectively – and on accepting what is acceptable and debating, discussing and (hopefully) amending expectations that are not. Expectations need to be specific to avoid complicating the ongoing relationship and objective so that they can be monitored, measured and reported on appropriately.
  • Engage in a mature manner. Part of the ground rules for engagement should be to spell out what this looks like, what to do when a deadlock is reached, how to resolve conflict as well as issues of transparency and confidentiality.
  • Lately recognise the ‘maturity level’ of the context within which you are operating. Identify specific actions that can be taken to develop, grow or increase the maturity – this could include training and workshops that could be run together with all the parties to focusing on the roles and responsibilities of directors, establishing the beliefs, norms and values of the team and ensuring a common understanding of the purpose, mandate and reason for the existence of the entity in question.
I acknowledge that this is not an easy task – but just because things are difficult does not mean we must not attempt to do something, to make progress and move things forward one step at a time. And then to look back and be amazed at how much progress has actually been made.

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