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Building a capable civil service in Liberia: The role of the Performance Management System

Over the past thirty years, Liberia has encountered a mix of challenges, from negotiating civil war and an Ebola epidemic to welcoming the first democratic transition of power in three-quarters of a century. The recently elected Weah administration has made governance one of the four pillars of its ‘Pro-poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development’, including a push to combat corruption and nepotism while holding state entities accountable (MFDP 2018, Porkpa 2018, Kollie 2018).  As part of this work, the Civil Service Agency (CSA) has taken a number of important steps to build a capable public service.

Liberia remains one of the lowest ranked nations in the Human Development Index, at 181 out of 189 (UNDP 2017, 2018). Between 2015-2016, the country regressed in its ranking on the Corruption Perception Index and citizens distrust in government along with a feeling of exclusion from public services remains a challenge (UNDP 2018, Omidian et al. 2017).

The CSA’s job is to build a civil service capable enough to confront all of these challenges. In these efforts, one of the CSA’s critical initiatives in support of the Weah administration’s governance-strengthening efforts is the Performance Management System (PMS). Started in 2015, it is expected to be fully rolled out under President Weah’s government. The PMS is a tool to document and analyse civil servants’ evolving performance and enable managers to more effectively develop staff’s capacity. Its goal is to ensure a capable and productive public sector by cementing the Government of Liberia as a meritocracy.

The push for meritocracy

First, the Government of Liberia (GOL) has brought in some of the most talented professionals to lead that fight.  After the war a number of professional recruitment programmes were rolled out in the early 2000s to give an initial boost to a depleted civil service after years of nepotistic recruitment policies and brain drain during the war. These included the Liberia Emergency Capacity Building Support Programme, Transfer of Knowledge Through Expatriate Nationals, and Senior Executive Service (Forte 2010, Yengbeh and Thompson 2014, CSA 2019, UNDP 2008). In 2009, the President’s Young Professionals Programme was set up, which is accredited with developing high performing junior government professionals to this day (Nuka et al. 2016).

Second, the CSA has teamed up with some IGC researchers and partners to improve its data on Liberian civil servants. To start, the donor community had helped the government undertake a biometric verification of its staff, ensuring that officials on the payroll were in fact alive, turning up for work, and supposed to be there.  An IGC-funded team then undertook a Liberia Civil Servants Survey (LCSS) of 2,772 public officials working across 31 Ministries, Agencies, and Commissions in the capital and found some surprising results. Though historically guided by authoritarian rule in a one-party system up to the 1970s and thereafter plagued by a culture of cronyism, patronage, and nepotism in the 1980s and 1990s (Forte 2010, Glencorse 2013, Reeves 2011), the GOL’s push for a meritocracy over the last 15 years appears to have paid off. In the 2017 Liberian Civil Servants Survey, 84% of respondents believed that service promotions are merit-based and 63% are confident they will get promoted if performing well (Coleman et al. 2017). Furthermore, 68% of respondents said that they did not know their supervisor before being recruited (Coleman et al. 2017).

The management gaps that remain

Even so, motivation among Liberian civil servants is lagging, as only an average of 66% of respondents are ‘satisfied’ with their job, compared to 75% public officials surveyed in Ghana, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Nigeria (Coleman et al. 2017). The lower motivation levels could be the result of limited opportunities for career progression, with only 22% reporting promotions in 2016 (Coleman et al. 2017), alongside the high dissatisfaction with pay (73%) and benefits (81%), and a widespread lack of resources such as electricity and Internet. As few as 20-58% of respondents at each institution have regular access to electricity, while even fewer (0-41%) have access to Internet.

However, the lack of quality performance management is also likely to have an effect. The LCSS used the World Management Survey (WMS) questions (Bender et al. 2015) to measure whether human resource management (HRM) in the service aligns with ‘best practice’ (score 5) or is devoid of any formalised systems or processes (score 1). On average, the 31 institutions performed lowest on Monitoring (2.64), Staffing (3.01), and Incentives (3.29), indicating that review of and communication by management on staff’s performance is irregular, with no consistent system for identifying, attracting, and retaining talented staff. A lower score on role autonomy (3.32) also indicates that staff have limited authority and flexibility to make decisions beyond certain aspects of day-to-day operations, which in turn can disincentivise staff from taking ownership of tasks and/or being proactive. Encouragingly, average WMS scores were higher for Targeting (3.79), Flexibility (3.64) and Staff Involvement (3.62), suggesting more formalised processes for tracking progress outcomes, enabling staff to respond to stakeholders’ needs or demands and involving staff in some of the decision-making.

Even so, HRM practices in the Liberian civil service still echo the country’s long military-governed history.  Managers hold substantial daily decision-making power and treat their position as that of a commander in an army, with an onus on micro-management. Employee performance records are minimal or non-existent, strengthening the position of the manager in the determination of an official’s career success. Furthermore, as the top two to three levels of management in public institutions are still filled by the President, the civil service continues to be heavily influenced by politics and nepotism, with 42% of LCSS respondents believing that their colleagues have political connections (Coleman et al. 2017). Thus, in the GOL’s efforts to create a more stable, non-partisan, and merit-based civil service, there is a real need to use the PMS as a more objective HRM tool, both to track performance and develop civil service professionals.

Realising the Performance Management System’s potential

To maximise the PMS impact on management practices in Liberia, it cannot be just an appraisal tool, but must also be used as a motivational tool, to recognise individual staff’s achievements (Sanjeev Kumar et al. 2016) and thereby encourage a more driven and subsequently productive workforce. In doing so, developing and maintaining an open, two-way dialogue between managers and their staff on their mutual professional development is key. Otherwise, the system risks becoming the mere measurement tool that Murphy and Cleveland (1995) warn against, which is more time-consuming and burdensome than it is effective. Or worse, it materialises into the type of patriarchal and out-dated management system used by bosses to exercise ‘punitive’ and ‘judging’ actions against their staff as ‘subordinates’, which Coens and Jenkins (2002) see appraisal systems as. To achieve this, the first challenge is to get civil servants to adopt the PMS into their daily practices and the second is to ensure that they use the system as intended.

While the PMS was introduced to the entire civil service in 2016 via Ministers and Human Resource (HR) Directors, only 54% of LCSS respondents had heard about the scheme in 2017 (Coleman et al. 2017). Of the Units who had started implementation of the PMS, only 85% had actually started appraising staff and among them as few as 27% had implemented all three phases of the PMS annual cycle. 54% of surveyed Units had undertaken individual work plans and objective-setting for the year (Phase I), while 19% had conducted a mid-year review (Phase II), and 27% had completed an end-year appraisal (Phase III). The top three constraints to adoption of the PMS included challenges around convincing staff of the system’s benefits, insufficient training and awareness about the PMS, and weak or insufficient monitoring (Coleman et al. 2017). According to reports made to the CSA, adoption of the PMS has marginally increased since, but a full embrace of the system across the service remains.

Going forward: Objectiveness and constructive criticism

PAS that fail to take off often do so due to a lack of involvement by managers and/or managers’ inequitable and subjective application of staff appraisals (Sanjeev Kumar et al. 2016, Boice and Kleiner 1997, Jozwiak 2012, Ochoti et al. 2012, Sang Long et al. 2013). In Liberia, 99% of LCSS respondents graded colleagues’ performance as ‘good’ or ‘very good’ (Coleman et al. 2017), despite contrarian reports of inefficiencies. Hence, for the PMS to realise its intended values as a useful HRM tool, more work is needed to train staff on how to be more objective evaluators and deliver constructive criticism. In Liberia where the work culture is very hierarchical and reactive work, HR departments and top-management’s buy-in is critical to push Units to adopt the PMS and ensure that they have the requisite time and resources to do so.

References

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