Bureaucratic commitment to local government: lessons from Zambia


Globally, local governments have important responsibilities in the delivery of agricultural, education and health services, and they are increasingly developing their own strategies to fight against climate change, supporting sustainable food systemsand promote gender equality. In fact, over the past three decades, most parts of the world have experienced increasing decentralizationa trend sometimes referred to as thesilent revolution.” Despite this general trend, decentralization faces various challenges that hamper its intended effectiveness. For example, high turnover and low retention of qualified civil servants at the local government level undermine continuity of service delivery, reduce public sector accountability to communities for project implementation and often require additional expenditures in scarce resources for training new employees.

In our new newspaper article, we examine factors affecting the continued commitment of bureaucrats to local government service in Zambia, which has a long tradition of pursuing greater decentralization. With the advent of multi-party democracy in 1991, the Local Government Act was introduced which stipulated the transfer of 63 functions to the country’s district councils. Successive government administrations, spanning the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), the Patriotic Front (PF) and now the United Party for National Development (UPND), have prioritized enhanced decentralization in the various national development strategies from the country. In fact, the Eighth National Development Plan adopted by the National Assembly in April 2022 aims to delegate even more services to local authorities. Nevertheless, the country’s 116 district councils have so far not been able to effectively fulfill all of their service delivery mandates, especially in rural areas with limited resources. Among other factors, bureaucratic retention remains a binding constraint to improving the capacity of local authorities to perform the functions assigned to them.

To understand the factors affecting bureaucratic retention, we conducted individual surveys of over 150 bureaucrats in 16 District Councils in Central, Copperbelt, Lusaka and Southern provinces of Zambia. The sample included communes with both high levels of poverty and relative affluence, urban and rural localities, and those whose mayors belonged to the two main political parties, the UPND and the PF. Respondents included professionals at three seniority levels: manager, mid-level, and general workers. In addition, the respondents represented six main directorates within the sampled municipalities: town hall secretariat, finance directorate, human resources and administration, public health, housing and social services and land use planning. The table below gives an overview of the sample.

Table 1. Descriptive statistics of the survey sample

Source: Resnick (2022) Survey of local bureaucrats in Zambia, Harvard dataverse, V1. Survey of local bureaucrats in Zambia.

Notes: N= 153 respondents. *Council Ethnic Majority (%) means that the respondent’s ethno-linguistic background matches the majority ethno-linguistic group in the council where he/she was serving at the time of the survey.

Organizational commitment was measured by asking respondents: “What career position do you aspire to occupy in five years’ time?” » All those who have expressed an interest in continuing in their current position, remaining in local government but changing their area of ​​expertise, or taking up a senior position in local government in their current area of ​​expertise, were ranked as being more committed to local government. Only 40% of the sample expressed such attitudes, while the rest preferred to obtain jobs with central government, the private sector, donor organizations, non-governmental organizations or universities.

We found that one of the most important factors driving public servants’ commitment to local government was mission alignment, which refers to the congruence between an employee’s values ​​and those of the organization. that he serves. Those who noted that the most enjoyable part of their job is contributing to local government and working with community members possessed greater alignment with the mission. In turn, those with this attitude were more than twice as likely to express interest in staying in local government for the next five years than their colleagues who expressed other reasons for working in local government. , such as job security, prestige, salary, personnel management, or using their expertise to design programs. In contrast, those who are better educated are four times more likely to want to leave the local civil service within the next five years. This dynamic is particularly worrying because it means that local authorities risk losing those with the highest qualifications even as municipalities increasingly need highly qualified workers to provide quality services. In particular, while salary arrears, non-payment of pensions, unpredictable transfer decisions and the interference of local elected officials in daily tasks are known issues for Zambian boards, these factors were not significantly associated with organizational commitment.

The findings have several policy implications. First, local government training programs should not only focus on practical tasks related to day-to-day work functions, but also inculcate a sense of belonging to the local public sector. Programs that introduce new employees to the culture and mission of the organization have been successful elsewhere, such as in Egypt. Second, regular visits to the communities bureaucrats are expected to serve could also reinforce the main purpose of their work for staff. In Zambia, such visits are particularly important for better-educated civil servants who otherwise concentrate on office work and meetings with their superiors. Third, the commitment to local public service can be strengthened through active recruitment graduate students in public administration, who often have a higher degree of intrinsic interest in the service goals of the public sector.

Much of the research on bureaucracy comes from high-income countries where civil servants face very different resource constraints, office settings, institutional challenges and organizational cultures than their counterparts in low-income settings. revenue. Too little attention is paid to the aspirations, morale and commitment of public sector bureaucrats in developing countries, and this gap is even greater at the sub-national level despite the growing trend towards decentralization. Our work aims to stimulate additional knowledge about this constituency that is fundamental to the implementation of policies and services aimed at improving the lives of poor and vulnerable communities.

For a more detailed discussion of this issue, see our recent journal article, “Organizational engagement in local government bureaucracies: the case of Zambia.”


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