The message to the public sector is clear: shape up or ship out

(File photo: Ameer Khalifeh/Jordan News)

Ruba Saqr

The writer has reported on the environment, worked in the public sector as a communications officer, and served as managing editor of a business magazine, spokesperson for a humanitarian INGO, and as head of a PR agency.

Last Wednesday, His Majesty King Abdullah sent a strong message to Jordanian ministers, top officials, and even small-time public sector employees to, essentially, shape up or ship out.اضافة اعلان

Chairing part of a Cabinet meeting at the Prime Ministry, King Abdullah introduced several principles for the current government to adopt as its new modus operandi. The aim seems to be changing the prevailing public sector culture, which has long been rooted in lack of accountability, resistance to change, and indifference to work ethics and a professional code of conduct.

According to a Royal Court statement, the King told ministers attending the meeting: “Any official who is not up to the task should step down in order to not delay the team.”

The statement also went on to say that “His Majesty directed Prime Minister Bisher Al-Khasawneh to submit a progress report on the Economic Modernization Vision every three months, saying the relevant ministries’ performance will be assessed based on progress in implementing the vision”.

The King’s remarks came nearly a month after receiving the Integrity and Anti-Corruption Commission’s report for 2021, which detailed some horrific instances of bribery, embezzlement, squandering of public money, as well as multiple accounts of self-enrichment from public office and numerous examples of conflict of interest.

So far, the trend in governance in Jordan has been to discover corruption after the fact, leaving the softer aspects of corruption — such as lack of vision and leadership, poor judgment and underperformance — to fall through the cracks. Those are mostly viewed as minor offences that do not match up to the bigger crimes.

However, it appears that the Jordanian leadership wants to change all that by instituting a new system of meritocracy and accountability in the public sector, by subjecting civil servants to a system of checks and balances. As a result, officials (and their subordinates) will start facing up to the consequences of their actions while on the job, not years or months after they have left office.

To this end, the King stressed that “each minister is responsible for building the capacities of his or her ministry to achieve its objectives and implement the economic and administrative modernization tracks, so that their performance can be assessed on that basis”, according to the Royal Court.

This is an extremely important message that, if implemented, will change everything about governance in Jordan. It promises to shake up the sluggish public sector and put it on a whole new trajectory, where performance becomes the determining factor in hiring people, whether they are ministers at the top of the governmental hierarchy or public servants working as managers or entry-level employees for the executive branch of government.

Additionally, ministers will no longer be able to justify the poor and unremarkable performance of their incompetent employees with the age-old excuse of having “inherited” them from previous administrations.

This should also introduce a new culture to the public sector where the ministers themselves, as well as everyone working under their command, are evaluated against specific “key performance indicators” (KPIs) that measure their progress and ability (or lack thereof) to fulfil their responsibilities.

KPIs are quantifiable, outcome-based metrics typically adopted in the private sector to help weed out weak-performing workers. They are also used to determine the eligibility of productive employees for promotions and salary increases.
It promises to shake up the sluggish public sector and put it on a whole new trajectory where performance becomes the determining factor in hiring people…
In the public sector, though, KPIs are mostly a foreign concept, productivity is an overlooked work value, and “career advancement” is inconsequential as long as the salary is guaranteed at the end of the month regardless of performance.

Such an attitude has dragged the government down a steep path of mediocrity. A recent example of how qualifications and merit are far from being a factor in the hiring process in the public sector is in fact mentioned in this year’s anti-corruption report, which was presented to the King mid-October.

Apparently, a young woman had impersonated her sister at one of the ministries for a little over three years (from May 2018 to September 2021) without anyone ever noticing. What this one-line story, which appeared in Al Ghad News about two weeks ago, tells us is quite appalling: work experience and academic credentials do not matter at all. Anyone can fill up a governmental position with no pertinent skills required, and managers and bosses will not be able to tell the difference.

King Abdullah also called on the current Cabinet to improve communication with Jordan’s professional media outlets and to uphold the “public’s right to access information”, warning that misinformation and rumors would otherwise run unbridled.

Recently, the government stood by idle as it watched a vicious disinformation campaign tear down the child rights bill, resulting in a maimed law that diminished the role of mothers in raising their children. This goes to show that poor government communication has grave consequences that the vulnerable and marginalized segments of society end up bearing the brunt.

While many Jordanians assume foul play behind most of the government’s actions, there are in fact several reasons for information being such a scarce commodity.

One common reason is that public-sector institutions do not know how to communicate with the media or the general public, and, in many cases, do not care to improve their skill level. Press releases relating to public projects or announcements seem to be written by amateurs, rather than professionals who understand the basics of communication, a problem that the government is yet to remedy.

Not only will better information-sharing nip disinformation and conspiracy theories in the bud, it will also help Jordan get rid of incompetent public-sector officials who hide behind a curtain of opaqueness and ambiguity to conceal their irreparable ineptness.

In some cases, information gets deliberately obscured to help civil servants take credit for strategies and programs they had no hand in creating. For instance, many officials present World Bank projects to the public as self-initiated programs, when in fact they offered no input to shape them.

Rooting out the very systems and people who prefer mediocrity over quality and excellence is the first step toward restoring public faith that the government acts only for the good of the Jordanian people.

Ruba Saqr has reported on the environment, worked in the public sector as a communications officer, and served as managing editor of a business magazine, spokesperson for a humanitarian INGO, and as head of a PR agency.

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