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An apolitical civil service

With political parties especially the ruling party approaching in-service civil servants to become their candidates, concerns are raised on the apoliticalness of the civil service.

The government, the ruling party, has confirmed that it has approached civil servants to become its candidates to contest in the upcoming elections. The civil service commission asserts that those civil servants who have been confirmed as candidates as announced in the media have done so only after they put in their resignations.

But with reports of in-service civil servants engaging in political activities still doing the rounds, there is a risk of the civil service losing the public’s trust. Given the large pool of human resource in the civil service, it is not wrong for any political party to approach civil servants and persuade them to join their party. There is however, a difference between a ruling party and a party outside the parliament approaching civil servants to become their candidates. The risk of politicising the civil service or the perception of it is higher when the government of the day asks civil servants who are constitutionally mandated to remain apolitical, join the party.

The government must not use its power to persuade civil servants to join the party or allow such perceptions to take roots because that would undermine and disregard the civil service’s professionalism and independence. Democracy is threatened when we allow civil servants to become party workers. The civil service has the constitutional duty to serve the elected government, not the political party. It is an instrument of the government, not the party. It has to remain politically disinterested but be responsive in implementing an elected government’s policies. The challenge lies in how the civil service tread this distinct but blurred role.

Keeping the civil service apolitical is one of the key issues and challenges the civil service commission has listed in all three annual reports that this commission has published and made public. In its 2014-2015 report, it had reported that to date, no mechanisms had been put in place to ensure that the civil service remain apolitical.   The commission had then stated that it would look at ways in which protocols for interaction and communication with elected leaders could be put in place as evidence of their impartial, apolitical, professional advice. It had stated that explicit policies on record keeping and documentation in relation to interaction with ministerial offices would be put in place.

Its reports also cite instances in the past where ministers had intervened in human resource matters. It claims to have reminded civil servants that because they are servants of the State, the government of the day, represented by the Cabinet, does not have ‘hire and fire’ authority over them.

The recent cases however, indicate that even if these reminders and reforms have been initiated, there appears to be weak implementation. As political parties strive to rope in the best and the brightest civil servants to contest as their candidates, this election, among others would test the integrity of the civil service. For apolitical values and professionalism, which are considered the biggest strengths of the civil service, are also its biggest weaknesses.

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