Why I feel sorry for senior state officials

I feel very sorry for those who work in government, and almost as sorry for those who interact frequently with them. For the public servants, it is not aspects like their remuneration or their office environment that I worry about, however inadequate these may be for some of them. No. My sympathy for them – and for those who meet with them – arises from how frequently their daily schedules are convulsed by someone “from above” who hauls them off without prior notice to attend another meeting now. It doesn’t matter whatever else they may have been doing or planning to do, and no matter with whom.

No effort will have been made to ascertain if at the time they were just sitting around idly, like an Uber driver waiting to be booked for a ride, or pursuing some insignificant task that could readily be postponed. And there will have been no evaluation of the relative urgency or importance of what they were involved in relative to what they were being called away for.

So very frequently, “above” imposes and decides. Like a spoilt child. It’s the way the government does things, and everyone submits, knowing it is just not possible for the summoned to explain why now would not be convenient and to offer counter-suggestions.

It is not surprising therefore that many government officials reach their offices well before dawn, so they can at least progress the critical items on their agenda for a couple of hours before the expected chaos kicks in. The more senior they are the more common this is, and I really admire these victims of top-down summoning for their sense of responsibility. (I just hope they are more sensitive with those around them when arranging meetings of their own.)

I have written in a previous column about showing up for appointments with top level government officials, only to be informed on arrival that they had been “called away”. I received plenty of supportive messages following that article, thanking me for airing the common grievance. Not surprisingly though, my writing led to no improvement in the situation! On the contrary, my sense is that meetings in government have become increasingly more disrupted.

It’s a much more serious matter with large meetings than for ones with just a few participants. To give a recent example, on the second day of the National Anti-Corruption Conference the programme was due to start at 8.30am, but we only got going three hours later. Well over 2,000 of us were seated at Bomas, being entertained by choirs while we waited, so the man and woman hours wasted can readily be calculated.

I know that at the topmost levels of government crises explode every day, in any country in the world. It is why, when asked what he found most challenging in his job as Prime Minister, the recently retired Harold Macmillan is said to have replied, “Events, dear boy, events.”

Yet some administrations deal with unforeseen issues in more considerate ways than others. Rwandan President Paul Kagame, for instance, is much admired for the disciplined way he keeps time, arriving at meetings on schedule, and expecting others also to do so.

So this is another appeal to my brothers and sisters at the pinnacles of government, and to those responsible for scheduling their meetings, to be more sensitive to the disruption they create when they summon others to instantly convened functions. I do so with utmost respect, appreciating that they are not acting frivolously. But my suggestion is that they should at least first ask whether the person being requested to cancel other plans abruptly had another commitment of equal urgency and importance, and so if their meeting could take place later or if someone else could represent them.

For that is another challenge. When called from above, no delegation is possible. But the consequence is that someone else will have to represent the one called away at the function they were due to attend, or it has to be cancelled or postponed. And so the chaos cascades downwards and outwards.

Too much of senior people’s time is being wasted. We can do a lot better.

Leadership in and beyond Rotary

A speech held by Mike Eldon at the Rotary Club of Nairobi on 7th February 2019

In Rotary we are all leaders in our profession, and here today we are all past, present or future leaders in Rotary. Sometimes we lead, and sometimes we are led, and in Rotary we must establish our reputations as performers and leaders afresh. We are all of equal status, and in this flat organisational pyramid of ours we must remain humble.

We are amateurs (from the French ‘aimer’, ‘to love’) and volunteers (again from the French – ‘vouloir’, ‘to want to’), leading other amateur volunteers, all professionals. And this profoundly influences the appropriate leadership style we should adopt.

We must first create and communicate the vision and values of our Club, in the context of the District and of Rotary International. We must inspire our members, appreciate and respect them, consult with them, coordinate them, delegate to them and empower them. We must do all this with a sense of humour, with a light touch – and not least at the weekly meetings, where we are the MC for 52 shows, plus at other social and project events. And we must not be ‘know-it-alls’, but rather, as I wrote in one of my recent articles, to practice ‘humble inquiry’, asking more than telling – and hence building trusting and positive relationships.

Then, we must deal with the egos of our members, some too high, some too low. We must handle their sensitivities and insecurities, that too often lead to conflicts and tensions and require us to pour oil on troubled waters, to negotiate, to mediate and help mend fences. For this is how to motivate and engage them. This is ‘talent management’ everywhere, and not least in the context of Rotary.

But possessing the soft skills necessary for all this, however necessary, is still not sufficient. For in addition Rotary leaders must also be professional managers: of projects, of processes, of finances, so that the Club runs like a well-oiled machine.

When I joined this Rotary Club in 1978 the members were predominantly older men and overwhelmingly white, with just a few Asians and Africans. I was in my early thirties, and by far the youngest. Of course there were no women! What a contrast to our membership composition these days – so diverse, of gender, of age, of sector, with several sub-cultures, each possessing different interests and preferences. The challenge to our leaders is to find ways of bringing them all together so that everyone is adequately happy, and accepting that many activities will appeal to some members much more than to others.

Today too we are all subject to the far greater pressures on our time that this 21st century has imposed on us, making volunteering that much more challenging.

These were key themes of last year’s PETS, and it was good for our incoming leaders to have the opportunity to discuss such issues. But PETS is a one-off, and Rotary leaders need ongoing opportunities to review their leadership styles and challenges. The DG, AG and Country Chair are available as mentors, but leaders should also reach out to others among us who can help coach them along their yearlong journeys.

Our Club used to be known as The Rotary Club of Nairobi. We were considered cocky and arrogant, imagining ourselves to be above and distant from all others. I never related to those images of us, but happily I believe we are no longer perceived in such ways. We are still respected and admired, but not with those negative connotations of years gone by.

There is so much expertise in our Club, so much institutional memory. We have held on to longstanding members, while attracting vibrant young men and women to join us. We have a rich array of vibrant, high-impact projects. And we enjoy good and productive relationships with our Rotaractors and Interactors.

What has enabled all this? Consistently good leadership down the years, generating positive energy among so many of our members, from the newest to the oldest.

The title of my talk was to do with leadership ‘in and beyond Rotary’, and it leads me to suggest that of you can lead peer volunteer professionals such as we are in Rotary, with all our expertise and all our egos, who can you not lead? It is for sure why many Rotarians, like Manu and Joe and Yusuf here, who have learned so much about leading volunteers in Rotary, have gone on to lead so many other important organisations as volunteers.

In conclusion, let me ask each of you: where are you headed in contributing to the leadership our Club so it can continue into an equally successful and sustainable future? How much are you learning about and practicing leadership here – bearing in mind that this is a cost-free risk-free opportunity to have a go, and so to learn and to grow? And finally, how are you applying what you are learning about leadership in our Rotary setting to your day job and to all your other activities?

What I have been trying to do here today is to stimulate you to reflect, and to do so purposefully. I wish you well with your reflections… and to their positive consequences.

Turkana County is a study in how to treat refugees

A few years ago I moderated a series of workshops for UNHCR to help them and their implementation partners strategise about the future of the Dadaab refugee camp. Their then Deputy Resident Representative Kilian Kleinschmidt (who is now active in Syria) dreamed of seeing the hand-to-mouth refugee camp dependent on mere humanitarian assistance transform into “the City of Dadaabia”, where mere recipients of humanitarian assistance would become self-reliant citizens who participated actively in their community and contributed to its wellbeing.

Sadly, it was not to be. For security and other reasons there was no appetite from the Kenyan government for contemplating a more ongoing and sustainable scenario, given the expectation (however unrealistic) that in the foreseeable future the refugees in the camp would return to their countries of origin.

Much has changed since then, both globally and in our immediate region. The UN’s Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) recognised that there was no need for either the host community to feel they were less well treated than the refugees, or for the refugees to be so restricted in their movements or activities. The new school of thought was to support the refugees in ways that were fully integrated into the overall local development plans.

This new sense of realism accepted that the conditions in the countries from which the refugees had migrated may well continue to be such that their return would be far from imminent. Beyond this, that the consequence of the ongoing existence of a refugee camp should be beneficial to the host community.

Turning back to Kenya, let me share what I have been learning about the Kakuma camp in Turkana, home to 186,000 refugees from various countries in the region. Here, the Turkana county government has been working closely with the national government, development partners such as UNHCR, the World Bank and its IFC, GIZ and others to bring about precisely such an enlightened win-win situation. Under the visionary leadership of Governor Josphat Nanok, great strides have been made to achieve the global vision as foreseen by the UN.

Turkana’s current County Integrated Development Plan spells out how the host and refugee communities will develop together, with an appropriate allocation of resources and in collaboration with development partners, NGOs, the private sector (not least Tullow) and other stakeholders.

I recently accompanied an IFC-led mission that also comprised representation from UNHCR and GIZ to Lodwar to hear from a number of senior county officials about how they are progressing, as a result of which I was keen to share my reactions to the extraordinarily impressive culture I found. In each of our meetings we met with men and women who were open and energetic, collaborative and purposeful, eloquent and cheerful. How refreshing that was.

Clearly the Governor has gathered around him a cohesive team that under his overall leadership plans well and then fully expects to execute on those plans – delivering the desired development impact. It’s like there’s a permanent Rapid Results Initiative mindset – without the chaos or bureaucracy one finds in so many parts of government. Kudos to them.

We visited the citizen-enabling Huduma Centre and Biashara Centre in Lodwar, as the visiting team explored how to support the establishment of a one-stop shop for such services in the Kakuma refugee camp. Everywhere we went, the people involved were knowledgeable and infused with an impressive seriousness of purpose.

No wonder I had heard that Turkana has been rated the best county in how it conducts monitoring and evaluation: it’s thanks to the healthy performance culture that has been nurtured. And no wonder too that when I asked the Governor to what he attributed this perception his reply was as modest as it was aspirational: “We’re on a journey,” he told me, “and we still have a way to go.”

I for one will be following their journey closely. And from what I saw I predict they will go from strength to strength, neither becoming complacent nor being overly dismayed by the challenges that will no doubt continue to confront them. Not least, they should become a global role model for constructive coexistence between a host and a refugee community.