What it Means to be a Civil Servant – the Ethiopian Context

We all dread the days we have to head to any of the civil servant service bureau even after we have procrastinated enough to the final day.


Because Ethiopia’s Civil Service System is one of the very least effective ones.  And we, those who reside in Ethiopia, don’t read this fact on news; rather, we live it in our daily interactions with civil service bureaus.


Elements of a Nation

Three elements come into play in the formation of a country: Government, People, and Land. If one of these elements is missing, a “country” wouldn’t be able to come to existence. It is from these foundations that a country develops to accommodate the very complex and abstract notions of identity, politics, history and many more which identify it.

Government, as one of the fundamental basics of a country, brings a structural order for the communal existence of the people who accommodate a demarcated land. In order to build such a structure and legitimize its existence, a government has to perform certain functions and tasks diligently. Here is where the notion of civil services arises.

Civil service is a collective term for a sector of government composed mainly of career civil servants hired on professional merit rather than appointed or elected and whose institutional tenure typically survives transitions of political leadership.

In other words, the government delivers the services it promises—as a structuring entity for the people—through civil service systems (CSS). This is why “civil servants” qualifications and expertise to a large extent determine the quality of implemented public policy decisions and thus the quality of life in the state. (Jolanta, 2017)   Furthermore, “Civil services have a democratic and ethical function; they should serve society and the law, protect the population as well as function in a sustainable manner.” (Demmke, 2010, p.5).

Thus, civil services are the channels where the government implements policies, enforces regulations and conducts administration services. Within the government, different civil service departments are organized with respect to various particular services they deliver such as agriculture, education, health, revenue collection, and trade.

In order to understand civil service as a whole though, it is quite essential to understand what a civil servant is since the service provider is as fundamental as the service being delivered, if not more.  So what is a civil servant?

A civil servant is a person employed in the public sector by the government department or agency or public sector undertakings. Civil servants work for and answer to the central and state governments, not a political party. The latter statement weighs high as it is crucial for civil servants to be of a neutral body and they are to deliver services and functions upon their professional qualifications rather than their political affiliations. This is what particularly differentiates civil servants, who are “selected” based on qualification, from public servants, who are “elected” representatives in the political body.

Even though there are common threads to be found in the practice of civil services in different countries, each country exhibits a particular civil service system owing to its political, social and economic makeup and its history of development.

Ethiopia’s CSS

Much of Ethiopia’s civil service system came to institutional level development during Haile Selassie I reign. Before Haile Selassie, officials were appointed based on loyalty and affiliation to the king. Their main responsibility is aligned to war and national defense.

Emperor Haile Selassie attempted to institutionalize the rule bound public administration by establishing successive legal frameworks (Bahiru 1991):

  • The establishment of the Imperial Institute of Public Administration in 1952 – Its objectives included training of civil servants, consultation and research.
  • The enactment of basic regulations governing the civil service through the Public Service Regulation no. 1, 1962 and the Public Service Position Classification and Scale regulation no. 1, 1972.
  • The establishment of the Central Personnel Agency by Order no. 23 of 1961 and amended by Order no. 28 of 1962.

The agency’s primary objective was to maintain an efficient, effective and permanent civil service based on a merit system. The following are some of the tasks of the agency and other related administrative measures taken during the period (Asmelash 1972; Atkilt 1998):

  • Establishing a homogeneous public service governed by uniform rules and principles
  • Recruitment of both classified and unclassified public servants
  • Appointments up to the rank of Assistant Minister
  • Instituting a pension scheme for public servants

Despite these efforts, the civil service system was blighted as rules and regulations of the system were not abided. Due to the political framework—which hasn’t changed despite these reforms—appointments, job opportunities, and transfers were given based on political loyalty rather than professional qualification.

Even after Haile Selassie’s reign, the civil service arrangement wasn’t out of problems. Both Derg and TPLF reigns were not successful in enhancing the civil service system to a developed state. In part, the reason for the weak CSS is the change of civil servants and civil service structure upon change of political power. The saying that “politicians change, but the administration (civil servants) remains” seems to be continuously disregarded in Ethiopian political history.

Ethiopian public service is said—by the government and others—to be weak.  Thereby, it is a daily news report and confession from the government that implementation failure is the major problem of the government. In the same token, researchers on Ethiopian developmental state (see for example, UNDP 2012; Desta 2012; Fantini 2013) criticize the current public service as ineffective and dysfunctional to implement policies and carry out the ideals of Developmental State (DS).

However, though weak Ethiopia’s CSS is, it also has its perks. Ethiopia’s public sector stands out for two main strengths (World Bank, synthesis report):

  • It has achieved a lot with very limited resources.
  • There is a fairly good alignment between its ability to make and implement decisions, so its deployment of practices such as targeting and monitoring is relatively effective.

These two aspects are important assets that many other low-income countries have struggled with. Thus, in seeking to address challenges such as staff motivation and reducing delivery bottlenecks, attention should also be given to maintaining and further developing these strengths.

The recurring challenges for the weak civil service delivery in Ethiopia are caused by different constraints. On the synthesis report The World Bank did on Civil Service reforms in Ethiopia, the major constraints were:

  • Inadequate resources to carry out assigned tasks
  • Lack of motivation (pronounced at the federal level)
  • Inadequate Leadership (most frequently raised at the woreda level)
  • Low level of prestige (particularly at the federal level)
  • Ad hoc work requests, and having to wait for inputs from others pose some burden

The constraints weigh differently across different levels of the CSS, which infers the need for close up analysis of constraints raised on each level. Moreover, adjustments should be forwarded specific to each level rather than in a generic format to the whole system. For example, the fact that inadequate leadership is most pronounced at the woreda level infers the need for enhanced leadership particularly on that level. This might be due to the negligence given to the positions found on the lower bases of the civil service system.

“Highly qualified leaders” are positioned on the top end of the civil service structure, leaving the local basis, which is the woreda level to those less qualified. The consequence of such placement order doesn’t end on employees; rather, it comes at high cost of the public. The woreda level is the fingertip where direct interaction of the public and the government happens. Meaning, the less qualified the civil servants are at the woreda level, the less efficient is the service delivered to the public. If so then, as the consequence is at high cost, why do we keep doing it?

Lack of motivation, which is reported mostly on federal level civil services, reflect the degrading value given to civil service job placements. People who work in government offices were at a point the most respected members of society; however, through time and due to different reasons, civil servant jobs have become the least enticing jobs given low social status.

Out of the various solutions which can be directed to overcome civil servants’ low motivation, listed below are qualified by The World Bank synthesis report:

  • Establishing a system based on competitive entry exams
  • Allocating greater funds for key operational tasks and systems
  • Leadership selection and leadership training focused on motivating staff
  • Seeking to understand further why motivation varies so greatly between organizations within Ethiopia

Beyond the constraints raised on The World Bank survey, other aspects bear a challenge to the civil service in Ethiopia. Upon our observation for this article, we have found it necessary to pick the few which we thought are key:

  • Technology deficiency/Digitization: The civil service system is the least digitized system where data are mostly, still to date, kept in manual formats. As a result, the system has failed to respond efficiently to the level expected in the 21st
  • Communication: The lack of digitalized information system highly impacts the service delivery in civil services. It is observed that it is quite hard to get a complete package of information sought from a single information desk in most of the civil service bureaus. Information is scattered and it takes unnecessary time and energy from the user to accomplish a simple task.
  • Language: The civil service system is where the government serves its people. Communication then is one of the fundamentals for effective service. Ethiopia, caught up between global and national tensions, finds itself strained to file data in English, Amharic, and additional local languages. Reality told is that the civil service system we have is not yet effective enough for one identified language. This applies to the dating tracker, too: Gregorian Calendar and Ethiopian Calendar; heading to one of the kebeles in Addis Ababa will prove you the difficulty regarding communication.
  • Professionalism: Nowadays, people are amazed and mesmerized when they encounter a civil servant who is professional enough to serve accordingly. People end up thanking civil servants who are punctual, polite, professional and uncorrupted even though what exactly they were doing is their job and nothing more. However, the fact that unprofessional service has overflown the system, people find it obligatory to pay exaggerated tribute to professional servants.
  • Employees not empowered to make decisions: Decisions flow top-down keeping the civil servants at the bottom of the triangle, at lower position to make decisions. The draining bureaucratic thread which the user undergoes to finalize a task is influenced by the less-empowered employees who depend on their bosses for decisions. This leads to the key constraint for the inefficiency of the civil service system in Ethiopia: Inadequate Leadership.

What it means to be a servant leader? And would servant leadership enhance civil service delivery in Ethiopia?

Different countries have reformed their leadership styles in their civil service systems to assure efficient and effective service delivery. The traditional, top-down leadership style has been losing popularity due to its limited scope in engaging different stakeholders in decision making.

Even though reforms may have different results upon each country’s particular context, some features of the reforms exhibit similar structures. Depending on these similar features, servant leadership seems to be effective in different countries, which in turn proves its effectiveness in practice.

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to

serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different

from one who is leader first; perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or

to acquire material possessions…. The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types.

Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.” (Greenleaf, 1970)

The servant leadership approach critically questions the initiative of one’s need to acquire a leadership position. The answer for the question, “Why would one want to be a leader?” is the basis which identifies “leaders” in the servant leadership model. Is it the urge to lead others? Is it the need to accumulate private properties and other material gains? Or is it to benefit some group of people using the position? Or is it one of the many other personal reasoning which would initiate the need to hold leadership position?

In Ethiopia, leadership positions hold complex assertions as the positions are not only related to qualification. Recently, Gender and Ethnical representation in leadership positions have come forth bringing challenges on how we view and allocate leadership posts. How far would the qualification of a leader as a leader be compromised to meet representation goals? Related to our political system, such questions wouldn’t be easy to configure holding the country to adjust reforms regarding leadership in civil service system within its own political context.

In servant leadership, the leader is the servant who provides the service duly as required of her. This approach of leadership brings a paradigm shift to the way we perceive and implement leadership. The leader now, within this model, comes to be the servant to act accordingly to deliver a service required. As a result, the hierarchical power, which is inflicted on the traditional top-down leadership approach, is reversed.

Particular traits of the servant leader are:

  • sharing vital “big-picture” information essential for holistic understanding
  • building a shared vision
  • managing self
  • fostering high levels of interdependence
  • learning from mistakes
  • encouraging creative input from every team member
  • spending time to question present assumptions and mental models
  • modeling and building shared trust
  • embracing a humble spirit

Traditional civil service was a hierarchical, vertically integrated, and closed corporation. This conservative structure was based on loyalty to the central state institutions, service, and immediate superiors, and only thereafter to the citizens as users of the administrative services. With the liberalization of Western societies and the beginning of globalization, this model of civil service did not meet modern requirements. It was necessary to reform and change civil service into something more effective, results-oriented, and open to the public. (Jolanta, 2017)

The civil service reforms, which sought out for better leadership techniques, were critical in advancing service delivery and civil servants’ satisfaction in different countries. Despite the differences between countries, researchers were able to identify a number of common features of CSS reforms. The study confirms an OECD (2008) analysis, which maintains that there is:

  • A transition from a centralized to decentralized determination of employment condition
  • A shift from statutory to contractual or managerial governance
  • A development from career systems to post-bureaucratic (position) systems
  • A delegation of responsibilities to managers
  • An alignment of pay levels with the private sector practices
  • A change of special retirement schemes

Thus, we see a clear shift toward Civil Service System management—establishment of more flexible and efficient civil service systems.  As we study the civil service system reforms, the practice of servant leadership becomes evident.

Demmke (see Auer et al., 1996; Demmke, 2010; Demmke & Moilanen, 2010), who examined

civil service systems of various countries, distinguished two systems which have two different leadership approaches in civil service systems (Auer et al.,1996):

  • Career system— with the prevalence of traditional hierarchical public administration, rational bureaucracy and formalized operational rules
  • Position system—with the prevalence of managerial principles, pragmatic administration, and charismatic leadership
 Career System/Closed
Position System/Open System
Conditions for AccessRecruitment only to entry positionsRecruitment also to mid-career jobs
 Specific diplomas and   educational background for specific careersNo specific diplomas, but specific skills set as requirements for the particular post
 Maximum age limitNo maximum age limit
Procedures in RecruitmentFormal recruitment proceduresNo formal procedures, but recruitment methods same as in the private sector
Career DevelopmentNo recognition of professional experience outside the public sectorRecognition of professional experience outside the public sector
Set promotion systemNo set promotion system
Rights and DutiesLifelong employmentEmployment on a contractual basis, no lifetime job
Remuneration SystemStatutory remuneration SchemeIndividual payment based on collective agreements
Set progression after certain waiting periodsProgression only through negotiations
Seniority systemNo seniority system
No performance-related payPerformance-related pay
Pension systemSpecial pension schemeNo special pension scheme

Table 1. Typical Elements of Traditional Career (Closed) and Position (Open) CSS

These changes account for the conceptual shift from unified, national state government to multi-level governance (Raadschelders et al., 2007). Caspar van den Berg and Theo Toonen (2007) suggest that multi-level governance rests on three pillars: lack of a single center of authority; the involvement of non-state actors in policymaking and policy implementation; and interaction in the public realm not so much guided by constitutional arrangement but, instead, being fluid, informal, and horizontal.

Civil services in Ethiopia could make the best of their reform process if they incorporated critical assessments of their service from the non-profit organizations, the private sector and even the public. Engaging different stakeholders and mainly the private sector is critical for the government to advance in its service delivery competency. Countries such as Netherlands are practicing open system and even more so practicing servant leadership that they have one of the highly-recognized civil service systems.

Leaders in the civil service system in Ethiopia will need to make the mental shift towards the servant-leader mentality if we are to see change.  They no longer will be the ones to abuse their power, rather, to serve accordingly to what they signed up for and what is expected of them in their service delivery.

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