Key Performance Indicators and government ministers, By Uddin Ifeanyi

Ifeanyi Uddin
Ifeanyi Uddin

It was with mixed feelings that I read in the papers recently that President Jonathan had signed performance contracts with members of his cabinet, in a bid, as one such report put it “to improve service delivery and accountability in government”. Finally, I there is an outside chance that the eerie silence on the federal government front (that has invited all manner of unbecoming comparisons of it and its predecessors in office) is about to succumb to the scream of activity, as government puts “our” money where its mouth has long dwelt: providing the “dividends of democracy” to the people. The main numbers are growing worse, no doubt. Unemployment is trending north, aggressively. Inflation is stuck, bullheaded, in the mid-teens. And someone has taken the right foot off the accelerator for output growth. Alarming, though, this all is, evidence at the street level is even more appalling. The expedients to which our people have to resort to square the circle of daily existence verge on the unspeakable. Largely, this is because an increasingly smaller portion of the economy now accounts for most of the wealth created in the current democratic dispensation.

Consequently, anything government can do to correct this problem cannot but be welcomed. Key performance indicators (KPIs), where they are properly used, are handy measures of progress towards achievement of stated goals. They acquire much of their salience, though, only after clarity is reached on where the organisation that has recourse to their use is headed, and once it is clear on whose behalf specific action plans have were agreed. In certain respects, these measures of how much progress is made towards agreed goals, have become necessary at the top levels of government because “the characteristic hallmark of bureaucratic management is that it lacks the guidance provided by considerations of profit and loss in judging the success of its operations in relation to the expense incurred and is consequently obliged, in the effort to compensate for this deficiency, to resort to the entirely inadequate expedient of making its conduct of affairs and the hiring of its personnel subject to a set of formal prescriptions”. In the light of this reasoning, and given the widespread use of this tool, it is a scandal that this government is just setting KPIs mid-way into its tenure.

Ludwig von Mises, whom I just borrowed from extensively in the preceding quote, recommends restricting the activity of the state “to the narrow field that liberalism assigns to it”, as part of society’s never-ending defence against the instinctive arbitrariness of government. One only hopes that the performance contracts entered into between the Jonathan administration and it’s ministers will proceed down the path that sees the bureaucracy gradually removed from that space proper to each Nigerian’s free exercise of his/her economic and political freedom. In our specific instance, though, where legacy arrangements have seen governments’ ramose operations reach into and beyond every department of our people’s lived experience, I imagine that this objective will be that much harder to realise.

Unfortunately, the federal government is minded to make this process that much more difficult. Or what is the point of setting performance indicators while promising that no one will be scathed thereby? “Consequence management” is the handmaiden of the process by which any organisation adopts KPIs. If the goal is to upgrade “the quality and quantity of service that Nigerians get from the entire government machinery” then the way to go is to reward people and processes that conduce to this objective; while promptly jettisoning those that impede it. In other words, ministers who fail on their KPIs must be “scathed” in order that those who do well are encouraged to exert themselves the more. Better still, why not create a space in which stakeholders are invited to help control the measurement process? I.e. publish the KPIs, and have beneficiary communities help with a 360 degrees appraisal of their implementation?

All of which would have been okay, if the federal government, in adopting KPIs for its ministers, did not also create the sense that this move is a branding thingy. Adopted in response to the belly-aching of newspapers that ceased long ago, according to it, to represent the people, and now instead represent their jet aircraft-owning proprietors. Government therefore conceptualises this initiative as a public relation gesture: all motion, no movement; all heat, no fire. Yet, the truth is that we have a very strong requirement to make ministers (and the government they represent) more accountable.

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