To Achieve Ambitious Goals in Government: Fix the Basics First

There is no “school for government Ministers” and most are put in positions for which they have no training or experience. Ministers are appointed at the behest of the head of government and their longevity in office is largely determined by the Ministers’ ability “to read the mind” and do things that “will endear them to the President.”

This was the theme echoed by two of Africa’s most experienced and longest serving high-level government leaders talking recently with participants in the Harvard Ministerial Leadership Program. Former Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, was first appointed a Minister in 1995 and went on to serve in different portfolios including finance and foreign affairs. He served as President from 2005-2015. Namibia’s Dr. Richard Kamwi served as Health Minister for 10 years preceded by five years as deputy minister. Besides staying on the right side of the President, both agreed that a government Minister’s performance depends on a clear vision that can inspire others to follow and fitting priorities to available financing. “Giving small money to many priorities” former President Kikwete said, “will leave you with nothing to show for your term in office.”

Dr. Kamwi suggested that being Health Minister is the most difficult job in government because public health is a function affecting every citizen requiring cooperation between many different sectors. Both Kikwete and Kamwi spoke of the increased public demand for access without financial burden and better quality public services, particularly in health and education, as well as higher levels of transparency and accountability. This is in part a function of the proliferation of electronic media, but also higher-level expectations of government’s responsiveness to citizens’ needs.

Most developing countries are struggling to meet these demands. Kikwete and Kamwi acknowledged that faced with historic deficiencies in the provision of basic health and education services, the main challenge in most countries is just “keeping the trains running.” Government ministers need to be ambitious in their goals, they argued, but achieving a meaningful legacy depends on strengthening the basics. Read their full comments here.