Management Consultant Mike Eldon

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.