Promoting institutional memory in Somali bureaucracy



By Liban Obsiye
Now that the Council of Ministers has been formally named and publicised after weeks of speculation by Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire, it’s time to remind all incoming Minsters of the need to preserve institutional memory after they are hopefully approved by Parliament. In the past it would seem that with all political changes, the organisational change or disruption as it can be best described, followed automatically. This meant a mass overhauling of key staff, priorities and even changes in Ministry names which displaced key experts on certain topics within the civil service.

Each change of Government in the past almost equated metaphorically to a rebirth of the Somali nation because of the lack of continuation, coherence and flip flopping priorities which most new Minister arrived with as if on a personal career enhancement exercise with a few of their own entourage.
Somalia is not a new state and has been independent since 1960. In this time numerous governments, both official and transitional, have created useful and viable policies and laws that have relevance today. These should be examined and modernised where required but most certainly used. Continuation is fundamental to public and investor confidence in any government, especially, one seeking to rebuild after a difficult two decades marred by conflict and poverty because it illustrates coordination, direction and rationality.

Since 2012, when Somalia elected its first internationally recognised government, much time and resources were spent on creating priorities, implementing policies albeit in a disfigured manner at times, and convincing the world that Somalia was moving forward in the right direction. What arguably hampered progress most in the last government’s policy ambitions was the unstable politics which saw three Prime Ministers in 4 years and a similar number of changes in Ministerial portfolios, including Ministry names.

Change in itself is not always negative and the lack of constitutional clarity in the executive powers between the Offices of the President and Prime Minister did not and does not to this day help matters. However, while it is difficult to have any control over the politics, it is easier to manage the bureaucratic processes and ensure the institutional memory required to mitigate the often turbulent and sudden political changes are in place.

The most important factor for institutional memory is the creation and adoption of a long term governmental strategy focused on achieving its national and international policy and political priorities across the board. This is hard to forget if the vision is agreed, clear and its execution effectively delegated to all stakeholders.

What President Farmaajo and Prime Minister Khaire must do is agree on their priorities, communicate it effectively and task all their Minister’s and their bureaucrats to execute it.

This early and firm agenda setting from the top will limit the Ministerial and bureaucratic flip-flopping and set a goals both must abide by or be held accountable for if and when it fails. In any case, there is very little room for Ministerial deviation if well guided because the challenges they are tasked with overcoming have been similar for decades and will remain so for the foreseeable future unless they make genuine headway in addressing them.

A week or so from now, exiting and incoming Minister’s will be signing Ministry’s away to one another and drawing a line under one period and welcoming another in the full glare of the media. However, in the past this process was rushed, defensive and often key misunderstandings led to mass policy overhauls which proved costly. This must be avoided altogether with a different handover process this time round. It is best that incumbent and new Minister’s spend a week together with key Ministry staff discussing past achievements, challenges and possible solutions. This process is less adversarial and more collegiate and is likely to promote continuity rather than the brash dismantling of poorly communicated policies and systems.

Given the importance of institution building across the board in Somalia and the limited funds and time the Government has, institutional memory must be prioritised. Institutions learn, improve and grow but while this process is ongoing the people’s lives do not stop and they need their government to have an impact on their future through public services.

It is therefore, important to remember that too many lives were wasted through poor record keeping, egos and the repetitive process of restarting from scratch every time the government changed.

Today, the Government of President Farmaajo is lucky because key documents to guide his government actions are already in place such as the Foreign Policy, Investment Law and National Development Plan among others.

However, to drive change forward to achieve his political ambitions of a secure, transparent and economically prosperous Somalia, he and Prime Minister Khaire must champion and oversee the creation of an institutional memory strategy which ensures all the lessons, successful or otherwise, are documented for scrutiny and further action for Somalia’s development journey.

Information sharing is crucial for institutional memory. It can no longer be acceptable for some Ministers to just work with their own entourage and neglect the Ministry and for senior members of staff or consultants to carry around official policies in their arms rather than sharing it with all the relevant colleagues that are working on the same matter.

Institutional memory will ensure greater care will be taken in policy making and implementation processes. It will also stop the often irresponsible telephone based bureaucracy and rash decision making by senior officials and encourage personal and collective responsibility. From this angle, it is clear that a focus on strengthening institutional memory will also lead to greater outcomes for institutional development as a whole in Somalia.

Somali bureaucrats do emphasise the importance documentation and institutional memory. They often speak of the famed Ministry archives which often are piles of paper on top of each other reaching the sky which serves no purpose other than further highlighting disorganisation. To promote institutional memory and personal responsibility it is not always necessary or prudent to sign on a piece paper any longer. It is easier to share, work on together and document things online through secure E-Government platforms. A digital file which many people have worked on together is better to scrutinise, preserve and institutionally rely on for decision making.
Of course, as important as institutional memory is, to achieve the prerequisite bureaucratic competence needed requires the government raises domestic revenues to pay staff properly and on time. Moreover, it is also crucial that the right people are employed with the right motivations within the public services.

Ironically, effective institutional memory, supported by E-government, would help to achieve this. The priorities are clear and action must follow.

Liban Obsiye is a senior adviser to the Somali Foreign Minister. Alongside his policy advisory role, he led on the institutional reform of the Ministry for the Minister’s Office from 2014. He can be reached through: & LibanObsiye (twitter).