The Involuntary Public Sector Downsizing Policy: Could it Reignite the Conflict?

By Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D.


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
June 2, 2006


Fear that the Sirleaf government’s workforce reduction policy dubbed “rightsizing” could reignite the conflict is on a rise. Opponents of the “rightsizing” policy criticize it on several grounds. First, the Sirleaf administration has seemingly not made the business case for its policy or demonstrated that it is rooted in systematic workforce needs analysis. Hence, critics claim that the policy is arbitrary. Second, given the supposed unsystematic nature of the policy, the current approach to workforce downsizing is prone to favoritism and corruption. Third, the mass lay-offs have the potential to create a pool of alienated and disgruntled unemployed people. Left without mechanisms for retraining and/or reentry into the workforce, such a mass pool of disgruntled unemployed people could be vulnerable to the malevolent tentacles of unscrupulous people - waiting in the wings to agitate instability.

Could the “rightsizing” policy be the right dose of psychological jolt that uprooted Liberians (child soldiers and other vulnerable people) need to retrigger the conflict? There is a palpable sense of insecurity within certain quarters of the country, and this threat to the security of these Liberians needs to be addressed by the government. The major goal of this paper is to turn the spotlight squarely on the Sirleaf government’s “rightsizing” policy.

Arguments for the Policy
Proponents of the “rightsizing” policy usually base their case on the argument that the size of government has grown increasingly out of control. Therefore, this bloated bureaucracy has to be reduced, if the government is to function efficiently. Let me state at the outset, that I believe in the critical need to reduce the size of the Liberian government. There are enormous benefits to such a public policy, because the current size of the government has created a fundamental crisis of governance. To change the prevailing dysfunctional political dynamic (inefficient state institutions), no policy is more apt to start the process than the “rightsizing” policy, if it is approached with significant care and caution. More so, “rightsizing” is not indispensable, it has to be concurrently accompanied by other organizational development interventions.

Talking Past Each Other?
Could it be that the two sides (opponents and proponents of the “rightsizing” policy) are talking past each other? Many of the people that are opposed to the “rightsizing” policy have argued for social justice considerations to be included in the debate about how to restructure the government based on the assumptions that it would support their argument. They have suggested that many civil servants have not gotten paid for prolonged periods, and to merely retrench them with limited or no severance is cruel. They have emphasized that the current economy does not provide ample opportunities for employment in the non-governmental and private sectors. Proponents of the government’s policy respond: a nation emerging from war like Liberia has decadent political/governance structures, and failure to restructure it would only mire the government in the societal ills that created the state failure, which brought the war.

Are the Policy Critics in a Quandary?
I strongly support any examination of the government’s policy because it is this dialogical exercise that will serve as a catalyst for requisite social, political, and economic policy reforms. However, one wonders if critics of the Sirleaf downsizing policy are in a quandary over the fact they cannot disagree that the pre-war and warring political and social structures were long overdue for full-scale overhaul. My thinking over the last two decades, at least, have been that to streamline the public bureaucracy is one of the most critical interventions that would effect good governance in Liberia. Here, I will try to explain why. But in making my case, I am not negating the argument made by critics regarding possible relapse of the conflict based on the approach to downsizing that the Sirleaf government has adopted.

The Case for Reducing the Size of Government
According to Paul Light (1999), measuring the size and scope of government is fraught with challenges. He notes that although government revenues and expenditures as share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), may provide important insights about the size of government, they do not provide conclusive evidence on the topic. In a war-affected/fragile state such as Liberia, where criminal behavior in public service has placed stranglehold on revenue collection and popularized the use of public resources for personal gains, Light’s notion of using revenues and expenditures to measure the size of government may be a virtual impossibility. It is obvious that over the pre-war and warring years, government increased the number of people on the payroll and yet still provided fewer and more mediocre services. The temptation to reward political and social cronies during the pre-war and warring eras increased as each insurgency group or transitional government took the helm of power. Simply put, the bloated size of the government is a natural outcome of past political systems ingrained in corruption and nepotism. Hence, the need to reduce the bureaucracy cannot be overstated. Add to this fact that the Sirleaf government is under great pressure from multilateral organizations and donor nations for a smaller and efficient government. To turn a blind-eye to the problem that it has inherited would be suicidal. It would dry-up monies from foreign donors.

Another meaningful challenge facing the Sirleaf government is that the public sector is the single largest employer in the country. With such an enormous control over the labor sector of the economy, reducing its role as an employer in many of the sectors where it has historically being unproductive would be a necessary step forward. Shrinking the size of government by privatizing public sector institutions or creating public-private partnerships in such areas as social services, certain aspects of the criminal justice system, agriculture, health, and higher education, may work to its advantage. This may enhance government performance and efficiency, especially when it contracts with service providers who have skills and flexibility that the government lacks. The cost savings from public-private partnerships may produce added benefits. But a word of caution has to be issued here. The government has to resist the temptation of creating near monopoly institutions that could replicate the dysfunctions of the public bureaucracy. The use of contract workers should not be merely to mask the size of government or serve as another vehicle for maximizing corruption.

Quality of the Public Sector Workforce
Let us not forget that wrapped in the debate about the size of government is also the question about workforce quality. The ideological grounds for favoring a smaller government are threefold. It produces merit, accountability, and ultimately leads to efficiency. Liberians do not only want a new face in the Executive Mansion and other public offices, they expect the government to keep pace with change. They want a government that can align its pre-electoral promises with its governance practices.

The Liberian pre-war and warring economies were on a downward phase of the business cycle throughout. It may even go down in history that the Doe and Taylor eras were the longest periods of economic decline in the nation’s recorded history. The major weaknesses of those periods could be summed up as political instability, deteriorating physical and economic infrastructure, lack of manufacturing, mining, rubber, timber, and service industries. Put another way, the chronic instability made it difficult for the country to attract investments and tourism. As the imprudent fiscal management became a pattern and was normalized in the society, it increased the country’s budget deficit. The depressing performance of the economy plummeted consumer confidence. The worse of all these conditions was psychosocial. Distrust loomed between the citizenry and the government when it illegitimately begun to use violence against the citizens. This, in turn diminished trust among citizens, especially since the government pitted people from various ethnic groups against the other. The burgeoning insurgency ethos or growth of armed groups only dampened prospects for peace and has been the thin underlying factor responsible for the fear of reigniting the conflict.

Context of Citizen Distrust of Government
An analysis of the pre-war and warring periods also reveals a cardinal mistake that seems to be rearing its revolting head in the Sirleaf government. Past Liberian governments were so arrogant that they did not feel obligated to fully explain the rationale for their policies to the Liberian people in a timely manner. Add to this fact, that in their wake, the Doe and Taylor governments left political and social environments that were so toxic in terms of relations between the citizens and the government that trust and civic involvement declined precipitously as did cross-ethnic/cross-class popular associations. The disconnectedness of the citizenry to the government only caused steady increase in ethnically-identified membership and insurgent groups. Even with the fighting over, many Liberians still bear scars of the war in the form of a complete lack of trust in the government to deliver on its promises. To break into a new realm, renew their vision, and build the courage to begin trusting the government anew, governance in the new era would have to be transparent. This is how the Liberian people will consider the government worthy of their trust.

Liberians obtain much of their information from the gossip mail. In the current global political environment, the Internet and unsophisticated media outlets have proliferated inside and outside Liberia. Some media outlets have demonstrated a tendency to mislead and even spur fear among their readers. Furthermore, the current government does not have the laurels (as a collective unit) on which it can rest, and therefore, it has to sell its policies and programs to the Liberian people and the world at-large. When the government does not provide adequate facts by which citizens can make informed decisions or evaluate the risks that public policies pose for them, their false perceptions are reinforced by the gaps. The government cannot risk planting deep and more widespread fears in the minds of citizens when it could make a strong case for its policies. There are those who claim that the dread of war is unfounded, but we have learned that unfounded rumors have a way of planting the seeds of war.

Deeply-Embedded Distrust
To examine the size of government debate thoroughly, it will take a clear explanation of the factors influencing the Sirleaf Administration’s decision. The Sirleaf Administration should not expect the Liberian people to accept its claims by faith. Distrust is chronic because past governments sow the seeds of such misgivings. The fear that if people are laid-off without viable alternatives for re-employment or retraining, this may evoke backlash in the form of a relapse of the war is genuine. This is true in light of what critics perceive as the Sirleaf Administration’s conscious and purposeful attempt (true or otherwise) to fire civil servants and bring in the Administration’s party loyalist. To allay such unwarranted fears, the government will need to express its policy in facts and figures.

The government cannot sustain a bloated government and that is an ongoing short and long-term risk to the Liberian economy. To prepare the Liberian economy for this challenge, it is critical to undertake a workforce reduction policy. However, there are those who believe that the government is sending a confusing message; when on the one hand, it expresses a commitment to reducing the size of government, yet still, maintaining a new ministry (Gender Ministry), which was a holdover from the past regime and also creating new portfolio positions that may apparently be duplicating existing functions. Responding to this charge in its business case for government size reduction would make a substantial impact on how long its critics would nourish and hold on to their fears. The government should carry out its policies in a transparent manner to avoid the slightest hint of marginalizing the Liberian public.

Making Liberia Competitive Again
How do we make Liberia competitive again? To make Liberia a competitive economy and to make it an attractive country in which people can invest, institutional reform and sound micro-economic management are essential. To reduce the risk for investors and cut the cost of capital for the country’s public and private sector borrowers, the security situation (vulnerability to relapse of the war), which is the worry of both the government and critics of its rightsizing policy, as well as a moderate debt burden, coupled with steady and efficient political institutions will improve economic stability. A stable economy would mean reductions in transaction costs, lower inflation, strengthening of public finances, making them predictable. Undoubtedly, expansion of economic activity would lead to job creation, which eventually would stabilize and enhance social and psychological conditions for many war weary Liberians. This may reward the country with a better credit rating and boost net private investments. Strong economic performance in Liberia would also have positive effects on the West-African sub-region, given the chilling consequences that the Liberian war imposed on the rest of the sub-region.

Conducting a Systematic Workforce Assessment
Key to overcoming the challenges identified by proponents and opponents of the “right- sizing” policy will be a systematic workforce analysis of the needs of the nation and transparent communications of the results and strategies to resolve the problems identified by the study. But even more importantly, the government’s strategy will not make a sustainable impact if it does not integrate the nation’s disadvantaged populations: former child soldiers, unemployed citizens, people with mental illness and other conditions that make it difficult for them to be absorbed into the economic mainstream of the society. Lip service is really insufficient here, and would only bring to reality the ghastly “fantasies of vengeance” that some Liberians feel or even express in private.

Repairing the Duality of the Liberian Economy
Liberia’s economy has a marked duality: urban and rural economies developing alongside the other. We have basically had two systems of governance in the past that have been geographically delineated, even ethnically defined. The unconscious or conscious belief that rural inhabitants are inferior, which some may hold cannot be inscribed into public policy without negative effects. Differential treatment of people who are identically situated in their nationality (citizens of the same country – Liberia) has to come to an end.

The urban economy is formal whereas the rural economy is informal, both functioning in a parallel fashion with very little strategy to bridge the disparity, especially, the gaps between the wealthy and the chronically poor. Being able to engage both rural and urban youth, who may inhabit different social and economic realities and contexts, is yet another challenge before the Sirleaf government. There is a strong link between personal and economic security. Liberians in the rural sector lag behind their urban partners in education, employment, and quality of life. Roadways are unpaved, schools are of poor quality, and nearly all indicators of well being, including health are appalling. Because a large number of rural inhabitants, if not a broad sweep of Liberians, have had limited education, job skills, and opportunities to change their life circumstances from one generation to the next, this now has serious implications for the country economically, socially, and politically. If education is an important determinant of social and economic well-being, and a certain sector of the society is steep in illiteracy, projections for the future can only be gloomy. In this context, it is particularly distressing that some policy makers might still be apathetic in responding to the acute problems facing the rural sector workforce.

Changing the opportunity structure by stimulating and sustaining social development in the country inclusively would be the pathway to reducing the fear and insecurity that some Liberians feel or have expressed. We now live within a knowledge economy where skills, competence, and personal and collective security depend greatly on the level of innovation that a society engenders. The new emphasis on knowledge places Liberians at a natural disadvantage, especially with the rising levels of illiteracy. The mediocre workforce quality is certainly linked to the social development policies of the past governments, which preferred one sector over the other. If the growth and development strategies that we use in the new era are employed differentially in identical circumstances as was done in the past, the natural consequence will be that the entire citizenry will all decline together. People’s fears may certainly translate into insecurity and dampen the full power of our efforts to rebuild and move forward.

Minding the Untapped Potential of the Liberian Diaspora
The capacity of the Sirleaf government to manage the issues that have arisen from the return of Liberians from the Diaspora, the most prominent of which is employing those Liberians who have become citizens of their nations of refuge through naturalization or birth is also essential to this discussion. Even a cursory glance reveals that integrating Liberians returning from the Diaspora is and would continue to be a critical issue in our post-conflict nation building strategy. An untapped potential of knowledge, competence, and economic assets rest among Liberians in the Diaspora, and how the government nurtures, supports, and sustains this population would solve some of the workforce needs of the country. How to recruit, support, and retain the thousands of qualified Liberians living in foreign nations has to be a priority, but it has to be balanced with meeting the employment needs of Liberians in the homeland. Repairing the differences that set Liberians in the Diaspora and those in the homeland apart so as to build a trans-national identity would also set the country on a path to integration. I should add that this topic brings me to the value of pluralism in the new Liberia. Some Liberians may be dubious about the nature of living in a pluralistic society, but the strategy that government uses in building national identity would set the course for bridging the differences that exist among Liberians along: ethnic, religious, and geographic lines.

Trends in the connectedness of Liberians to their government and to one another or group affiliation in most spheres; reveal that our social and civic life is severely fragmented, and even embittered. Combined with the fact that public institutions are structurally weak, the Sirleaf government is starting from a very fragile position, and we acknowledge this fact. However, the fears expressed by the public reflect a poorly managed public relations campaign on the part of the government.

Is it not a reality that the rule of law and the establishment of private property rights have yet not been established by the current administration? The ongoing conflict in Nimba County between the Mandingoes on the one hand and the Manos and Gios on the other over property rights is a poignant example of a fragile state, which borders on relapse of the conflict. Was it not in Nimba County that Charles Taylor found his most vulnerable converts and turned them into homicidal agents? Why should there be a surprise that after Liberians have been immersed in uncertainty and generational poverty that they would not be extremely fearful of the war revisiting their doorsteps once again? The Sirleaf government can diffuse the slide into war by making the economic and integration case for appropriate workforce reduction.

I am optimistic that this paper opens up new ways of thinking about workforce governance in light of some of the mistakes described here. Governance, in this new era cannot be done in a piecemeal fashion. The new models or ways of doing governance must spring from serving the common good. And the way to do that is to strategically reposition the public sector for all Liberians to participate in the economy. Where high levels of inequality exist, the norm is for people to remain perpetually suspicious, fearful, and even vengeful.

© 2006 by The Perspective

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