Need to Embrace Perspective, Persistence and Normative Values in Public Sector Reforms

Need to Embrace Perspective, Persistence and Normative Values in Public Sector Reforms

Earlier in 2018, the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA) hosted a stakeholder workshop to identify the challenges and opportunities facing ongoing public-sector reforms in Kenya. The workshop featured key representatives from the national and county governments, private sector institutions, and civil society and faith-based organizations. Among the numerous issues raised during the workshop deliberations, three stood out and form the focus of this article. First was a concern that there was too much focus on looking at the precise interventions for public sector reforms, whereas what was really needed was to look at the bigger reform picture – where we were headed to when we began the reforms; whether we are still on course; or whether we have gotten stuck or lost our way. The second concerned the increasing prospect of reform fatigue – the notion that the flames of reform, which once burned bright, have steadily been replaced by reform apathy and reticence, owing to perceptions that there have been too many calls for reform with few positive results. Lastly, was a concern that what ails public sector reforms in Kenya reaches beyond the scope of legislation or conventional technical expertise and requires a new range of remedial tools – such as moral imagination.

Kenya’s Vision 2030, which was launched in 2008, sets out a roadmap for the country’s national long-term strategic development aimed at securing shared prosperity and equity by 2030. Central to this vision is implementation of crucial reforms to Kenya’s public sector. Kenya’s 2010 Constitution also features similar contemplations, by outlining new ethical, demographic and geographical considerations for a revamped public sector. Taken together, these anticipated reforms include, among other things, the decentralization of government services, new requirements for gender and ethnic representation and stiffer conditions and sanctions related to public officer integrity.

However, several events since then have cast a legitimate cause for doubt about Kenya’s public-sector reforms. These include reported incidents of medical negligence in public hospitals, in-fighting in the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, and recurring allegations in the Auditor General reports of widespread mismanagement of public funds both at the national and county level, to name but a few. This article seeks to respond to these concerns about the direction, pace and scale of public sector reforms in Kenya and in particular address the key reform concerns raised during KIPPRA’s stakeholder workshop on the challenges and opportunities for public sector reforms in Kenya.

In dissecting Kenya’s public sector reforms, we can draw on the work of renowned American sociologist and founder of evidence-based policing, Lawrence Sherman, who developed a reform framework based on his study of the evolution of New York’s corrupt and beleaguered 1970s police service and its transformation into a more professional entity, contributing to a sustained decline in city crime, which remains apparent today.

What the evidence says about the reform process

From his observations of New York policing reforms, Sherman postulated that the journey of reform consists of three salient parts, summed up by a ‘scandal-reform-relapse’ cycle.

From Sherman’s research come three crucial insights, which we explore below; namely, on:

The need to acknowledge and embrace the turbulence of reform

According to Sherman, a major challenge to the general work of reform concerns misconceptions about the road of reform. Sherman’s research indicates that reform is not the complete elimination of scandals, but a capacity to minimize incidences of scandal and emerge stronger from the exceptional crisis. It would follow that a public-sector reform realist ought to appreciate that scandals, however undesirable, are an inevitable by-product of institutional longevity. With the longevity of an institution comes a greater likelihood of scandal, in much the same way that human longevity bears a positive correlation with the sum of one’s own transgressions. This inherent tendency towards entropy or disorder explains why one only has to stop any work of maintenance to appreciate the veracity of this natural decline into chaos and dysfunction. Public sector institutions are no exception to this natural law.

On the contrary, while undesirable, the public emergence of a scandal can often have its benefits. Like bodily pain, a scandal may signal an underlying malaise in the anatomy of a public sector, which might otherwise have gone undetected. Therefore, framed correctly, the public emergence of a scandal can have catalytic effects by generating the incentives for the application of new reform measures and interventions. Viewed through this prism, the exceptional scandal represents a means by which public institutions might patently see the need to proceed along the path of reform. As evidence of this point, the on-going push towards raising both ethical standards and minority representation across Kenya’s public sector can be traced back to related scandals highlighting corruption and ethnic exclusion. The above evidence from Sherman’s work would suggest that despite the exceptional scandal, Kenya’s journey towards realizing public sector reforms will likely remain on track. Consequently, those leading the charge of reform in Kenya’s public sector would do well to acknowledge the turbulence of genuine reform – in recognition that all such reforms exist between two moments – that of an initial scandal and that of a possible relapse, and consider this a call to make the most of this interregnum for positive reform and demonstrate resilience in the inevitable day of scandal or relapse.

The need for persistence

Viewed against this background of a natural institutional tendency towards disorder, Sherman’s work points to a second deficiency in prevailing conceptions of reform. This is the misconception concerning the orientation towards short-term expectations and results – what some in the private sector would refer to as ‘quick wins’. Sherman found that the work of genuine reform is by design, a perpetual undertaking. Like propelling a rocket through the atmosphere requires continuous upward thrust, so striving towards the realization of public sector reforms is an act of gravity-defiance, a never-ending struggle not to crash back to a baseline of underperformance, corruption, scandal or relapse. To seek to reform any institution is to wage war against a status quo of chaos and disorder and those who grow weary or do not tarry along the road of reform veer off into a byway of reversion. Far from succumbing to reform fatigue, apathy or reticence, a more constructive response to frustrations associated with the low reform implementation is an increase in participation and idea generation by all stakeholders vested in the realization of reforms across Kenya’s public sector.

The need to focus more on norms not laws

As one County Executive Committee Member pondered during the workshop deliberations, what ought to be done “where the implementors of the law are themselves corrupt.” Similarly, what explains why notions of mutual reciprocity and ‘brotherhood’ among New York police officers overrode the obligations of these officers to blow the whistle on institutional malpractices (Sherman, 1974). And, if there really is consensus in Kenya about the objectionable nature of inefficiencies in the public sector, why has this acknowledgement not led to greater public officer motivation or precluded truancy in the public sector?

It follows that a third and valid concern regarding the realization of public sector reforms relates to the apparent de-emphasis of the vital role of values and culture in facilitating public sector reforms in favour of formal rules and procedures – a point illustrated both in Sherman’s sociological analysis of policing reforms in New York and in a 1996 study on the anatomy of corruption in Kenyan society by jurists, Kivutha Kibwana, Smokin Wanjala and Oketch-Owiti.

It is often the case that proponents of reform place strong emphasis on the role of formal rules in facilitating the governance and reform of public institutions. The passage or strengthening of laws and formal procedures is frequently depicted as a proverbial ‘silver bullet’ against scandals or relapse. However, proponents of this paradigm would be hard-pressed to show evidence of the efficacy of the law in reducing scandals. For instance, while there is a multiplicity of codes and protocols on the integrity of public officers, offending of these codes remains prevalent.

This over-reliance on laws and formal institutional procedures to bring about reform fails to consider the precise nature of the kinds of rules that truly govern people and institutions. Criminological theory posits that people, who are a primary manifestation of institutions, scarcely act under the direction of formal rules, as much as they do under the influence of personal values and the customs, conventions and informal rules of the context in which they operate. Put simply, the laws of basic survival. As articulated in the work of Kibwana and others, this is the difference between what they refer to as the ‘aspirational’ or intended form of the law, versus its actual or ‘full’ form (Kibwana, Wanjala and Oketch-Owiti, 1996); or stated otherwise, the discordance between the codified normative values and practices, which officers know ought to govern their institutions, versus the values and behaviours they are forced to deploy to survive or thrive in those same institutions.

A growing interest in moral and cultural transformation brings into sharp focus the potential value of faith-based organizations as facilitators of moral imagination and public outreach, owing to among other things their unique expertise and unrivalled assets, scale of reach, credibility and access to grassroots. While there certainly is a place for the role of laws and formal procedures in reforming institutions, it increasingly appears that their role has been overstated. Laws and formal procedures are neither synonymous with nor a panacea for reform and as indicated by one guest speaker in the KIPPRA’s stakeholder workshop on public sector reforms. Under the public glare of shortcomings to legislative and conventional technical reform interventions, perhaps it is time for the public sector to view building a new capacity for moral imagination as the next frontier for the advancement of public sector reforms.

A call to action

What applications can public sector reformers in Kenya derive from these insights? From the research conducted by Sherman, it is conceivable to conclude the presence of scandals in various institutions does not necessarily mean the work of genuine public sector reform has entirely stalled; rather, they demonstrate that the occurrence of some institutional crises or relapses is inevitable. Zero-tolerance of scandals does not guarantee zero occurrence. Thus, public sector reformers and policymakers alike should seek to win the prevailing narrative on the progressive state of long-term sectoral reform and remain unwavering in genuine reform efforts even in the face of vacillating short-term results.

Secondly, perhaps it is time for public sector reform stakeholders to recalibrate their conceptions concerning the work of genuine reform to match the perpetual enterprise that it truly is. Third and finally, public sector reform stakeholders in Kenya have rightly recognized the shortcomings of an emphasis on reform by dint of legislation or legal writ, given that those who constitute the public-sector workforce, like the rest of us, are mostly driven by unwritten, implicit laws and cultures necessary for survival, rather than by explicit codes of conduct. Laws and formal procedures alone are ill-equipped to change the soul of the Kenyan public sector. Herein, perhaps, lies a prospect for increasing partnerships with far-reaching, faith-based organizations.


Renowned English Poet, Horatio Smith, is quoted as having said, “Reform, to be useful and durable, must be gradual and cautious.” So, it is with Kenya’s public-sector reforms; a continual work of reform, which began at independence and persists to date. In view of this, the fate of Kenya’s public sector remains at a sustained and opportune inflexion point – a perpetual ‘kairos moment’ to reform public service delivery. Kenya retains her opportunity to realize her goal of becoming a ‘middle-income country, providing a high-quality life to all its citizens but only if Kenya’s public sector reforms stakeholders sustain the momentum of reform. Surely, the arc of Kenya’s public sector reform journey is long but it bends towards opportunity.

Further reading

Kibwana, K., Wanjala, S. and Owiti, O. (1996), An anatomy of corruption in Kenya: Legal, political and socio-economic perspectives

KIPPRA (2017a), Proceedings of the workshop on the role of transformative leadership in public sector reforms in Kenya

KIPPRA (2017b), Developing transformative leadership for Africa’s socio-economic leap forward: Kenya case study (Final draft manuscript)

Lang’at, P., Owino, S. and Mwere, D. (2018), Inside the final meeting that tore IEBC apart. Daily Nation, [online]. Available at [Accessed on 23 April 2018]

Nduvi, S. (2017), Is wealth declaration a means to an end or an end in itself in curbing corruption? KIPPRA Blog, [online]. Available at  [Accessed on 23 April 2018]

Njeru, B. (2018), KNH on the spot after brain surgery is performed on wrong patient. Standard Digital, [online]. Available at [Accessed on 23 April 2018]

O’Connor, P.J. (1974), Book Review – Police corruption: A sociological Perspective, 3 FordhamUrb. L.J. 151.

Office of the Auditor General (2018), Summary of the report of the Auditor-General on the financial statements for national government for the year 2015/16. Government of Kenya

Sherman, L. (1974), Police corruption: A sociological perspective. Garden City: Anchor Press.

Author: Andrew Levi Olando, Policy Analyst, Governance Department

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