Political framework of government advisors

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Namibia, like almost every country, is home to a plethora of advisors at almost all layers of government, including in the military, economic and socio-political arenas.
The advice given by the advisors is not for free. It might be prudent to zoom into the nature of advisors in government, especially political advisors, in order to understand why the taxpayer pays for such services and whether or not such services are essential to the smooth running of government and rendering of services to the public.
Most governments worldwide make provision for advisors to members of the cabinet, legislature, presidency and local and regional government. Generally, they are assistants to heads of state, ministers, governors, etc. to whom they offer advice and support. They are essentially appointed on the basis of “trust”, which is entirely personal to the president or minister.
Their appointments should, under the circumstances, only last for as long as the president or minister holds office. The distinctive function of advisors is to offer advice.
The fact that advisors are personally appointed by the president or minister on the basis of “trust”, means they are exempted from the usual civil service entry requirements, although in some cases they may have served as civil servants.
Apart from the personal “trust” between them and the appointing authority, there is rarely any qualification required for the appointment of a political advisor (as one example).
Obviously presidents and ministers look for individuals with competence, although the “trust” factor is an overriding requirement. The “trust” is usually based on friendship, acquaintance, platonic relationship or political affiliation. The question has always been: should they be regarded as civil servants, in view of the fact that they are responsible only to the president/minister and take their instructions from him/her? Is it realistic for advisors to be full-time employees, paid a full wage?
In most cases, advisors are exempted from the requirements imposed on civil servants to conduct their work with political impartiality. The main point here is that they offer politically loaded advice to the president/minister that the president/minister cannot request from the civil service.
Since the selection of advisors is personal to the president or each minister, their recruitment is often unsystematic and random. In addition to the hundreds of advisors that almost every government has, each government has vice presidents, prime ministers, deputy prime ministers, cabinet ministers, deputy ministers and permanent secretaries (this category is composed of government’s highest ranking technical civil servants), all of whom should offer the necessary advice to the president on how to govern a country to prosperity.
By definition, political advisors are expected to have strong political affinities with the president/prime minister/minister for whom they work. However, evidence in this regard is that most leaders do not regard political allegiance to their parties as a factor when they appoint personal advisors (political or otherwise).
President Museveni for example, appointed Klaus Holderbaum, a former German Ambassador to Uganda, as his Senior Presidential Advisor on Special Duties. Before that, Holderbaum was appointed Advisor to the Ugandan Minister of Trade and Industry.
Back home, we have die-hard anti Swapo elements (who still harbour bitterness against Swapo) as advisors and administrators in the highest offices of governance in a Swapo-led government. An advisor might not necessarily have to be from the same political party as the principal he/she has to advise. The advisor must, most importantly, be sufficiently in tune with the principal’s political and ideological views to ensure that the advice provided is in line with the principal’s political outlook and values.
There are three main types of advisors that are available to government and other institutions. These are: the expert, the generalist and the media aid. The experts are usually in a minority and are recruited because of their expertise on particular issues of importance to the president or minister. No political affiliation considerations are required for their appointment. The generalists, who are commonplace in most countries, are hardly consulted for advice by the president or minister.
Their appointment is purely dependent on political and other interests, rather than professional and technical merit or competence. Many of them have unexplainable roles, yet they are full-time employees. It is not clear what they are expected to do, what advice they are expected to give and to whom, and whether they actually advise their principals and to what extent do the principals take their advice. It is common to find some advisors, who have not met their principals for months or years.
How much government spends on advisors is dependent on public tolerance rather than on legislation. There are very few pieces of regulation worldwide that set a limit on the number of advisors to a president/prime minister/minister.
Regulations governing the work of advisors, where they exist, seem to concentrate mainly on their formal legal status and line of accountability, and not what they have to do. It is extremely difficult to assess the effectiveness of advisors to government. This is because their impact on policy is always difficult to discern.
We need to remember that growing old is inevitable, while growing up is optional. It is time that we grow up and realise that governance is for the people and not just the empowering of a few. When advisors advise the wise, wisdom gets lost.

* Dr Charles Mubita holds a PhD in International Relations from the University of Southern California.

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