Zambia has won the Africa Cup! What can my country’s latest achievement in football teach us about how to rekindle the spirit of Public Service? Does it take more than politicians to inspire a country? What are some of the missing elements in our effort to attain our desired standard of living for everyone? Are we paying the right level of attention to all those areas that are necessary for driving national development? These are some of the question I have been reflecting on as I write the subsequent paragraphs.

Many people would agree that national development needs committed political leaders and a robust or thriving private sector. Political leaders are largely responsible for initiating the laws and policies that govern the use of national resources (human and otherwise). The business sector is best suited to generating much of the wealth we need to attain the quality of life we feel everyone deserves. We can also easily see the contributions of civil society in making politicians and businesses accountable. The power of civil society showed itself in a very significant and extraordinary way when a number of governments collapsed in 2011 in what has come to be known as the Arab Spring. The Occupy Movement has also demonstrated civil society’s determination to influence a re-think of the role of the private sector in society. The entertainment and sports industry give us a glimpse of what we can do if we drop all our pettiness and focus on what unites us. Our performance in the just ended Africa Cup which has seen us emerge African Champions, for instance, shows that we can break new grounds if we push our boundaries just a little further.

I am of the opinion that we do not often sufficiently see and acknowledge the significant role that a truly committed and skilled Public Service plays in national development. By Public Service I am referring to the Civil Service (managerial/administrative of government) and all parastatal bodies or any other institutions that are set up by government to serve the citizens of a country.

Is the Spirit of Public Service dead?

Working in many African countries partly gives me the impression that the spirit of service in the public sector is dying. You begin to see this from airports of certain countries. You meet immigration officers and airport staff that show on their faces that they are at pains attending to you. They would rather be elsewhere.

You get similar experience as you go to the Ministry of Lands to follow up on your application for a piece of land you would want to acquire. The public servant sitting on the other side of the table looks very disinterested in attending to you. His attention is split between attending to you and listening to the small radio on his table. The story is the same when you rush to a clinic or hospital because you have suspected malaria. The officers attending to you are unable to hide their displeasure in the work they do. Things get a lot nastier when you go to the police station to report an incident. You are ridiculed for having your items stolen and then given a lecture on what you should do next not attract thieves.

In the end, you feel like you must inform the more senior public servant who might see things from a policy perspective. If you are lucky to be given an appointment with the ‘big boss’, you meet someone who is immaculately dressed, carrying more than one mobile phones and constantly answering both the mobile and land phones. In the end the big boss casually says, “I will ask someone to look into your issue”.

How can the true spirit of Public Service be revived?

Part of what it would take to revive the spirit of Public Service in developing countries is to make working in the public sector a prestigious experience. This has been the case before in Zambia and many other countries. To some extent, developed countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States have managed to make their Public Services environments where people who feel the need to contribute to their countries in a particular way seek to work – at least for a period of time in their careers. The Public Servants I have had the opportunity to work with in Rwanda display, with grace, great enthusiasm and exceptional professionalism.

What is it that makes the Public Service a prestigious environment to work in?

  • Perceived to be uniquely professional: When the Public Service is perceived by the general public to carry out its functions in a uniquely professional way, it gives a good feel to those who work in it. This perception becomes an attraction to young and accomplished talent. It must be easy for us to imagine how many young children in Zambia will in the next few years dream to play professional football after seeing the magic our National Team displayed in the last few weeks in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. Many workers enjoy being seen as a special group of professionals – people who know how to perform their functions with great and exceptional distinction. The label “professional” in the Public Service comes from years of specialised training in and experience of how to make the bureaucracy (used in the positive sense of an instrument for making government achieve it reason for existence and objectives) function as effectively as possible.
  • Public Servants viewed as individuals with a special vocation: Working in the Public Service is and must be made to look as a special vocation. The Public Service is a special vocation in that it ought to attract people who have a special inclination to using their giftedness to serving the interests of their country. Public Servants are expected to be individuals who can be trusted with the privilege of wielding state powers, not for self-interest, but in service of the public-interest. In comparison to people who serve in other sectors, Public Servants carry a lot of powers to suspend, stop, and encourage the activities (and even existence) of other sectors.  It is expected that the men and women who work in the Public Service will not use these special powers in any manner other than promoting the public-interest.  
  • Recruited from among the best: When the Public Service is perceived as a special vocation in service of the country, it acquires the capacity to recruit its staff from among the best in the country. Sufficient numbers of young men and young women who are top of their classes in colleges and universities compete for their entry into the Public Service. Accomplished professionals in others sectors find it prestigious to be invited to offer their services – on a temporary or permanent basis – in the Public Service.
  • Quality working environment: Those dedicated to the service of their country must work in fitting conditions. They must have the physical environment that permits them to think hard about the needs and challenges of the country. It means their offices must not be over-crowded and full of dilapidated furniture. The equipment and technology must be top of the range to enable efficiency to be an obvious part of the culture of the Public Service.
  • Reasonably remunerated: Although Public Servants have a special vocation to serve their country, they need to be reasonably remunerated. This does not mean they should have conditions of service that are equal to those who work in the profit oriented private sector (although where conditions permit people must be remunerated as well as possible). There should be creativity in how to create attractive conditions of service for public servants. A healthy pension scheme, good working environment, quality facilities, the prestige that comes with the sector, and opportunities for professional development, among other sources of motivation and inspiration help to build the notion of worthwhile remuneration or reward.
  • Acknowledgement and encouragement from leaders: Public servants are often ridiculed and used as a scapegoat by leaders in situations of failure or underperformance. While this will definitely occur from time to time, public servants must be acknowledged and encouraged openly and publicly by political and other leaders for good they do. Acknowledgement and encouragement in word and deed invites the best in public servants. Leaders have an obligation to build a healthy and genuine positive perception of the Public Service.


Zambia, as a nation, has evidently found a way to inspire our national football team to great success. How can we transfer our learning to the way we run our public institutions? I suggest that we find ways to make the Public Service attractive to the best men and women with a calling to serve their country in this special way. Having had the opportunity to serve my country as a civil servant at Parliament, a lecturer at the University of Zambia and an adviser to the President, I have witnessed the significance of the work that public servants do. I have a lot of respect for those who consciously choose to serve their country by working for government or its sub-systems.

The honour of waking up every day and thinking about how best to use the instruments of the state to promote the interests of the country and fellow citizens gives immeasurable reward even before the pay roll is run. It is an incredible responsibility to know that what I do on a daily basis as a public servant affects whether the farmer gets his her fertiliser or not; that my work is directly related to the health of children, women and the rest of society; that how I spend my day in the office can determine the education level of a child; that how I perform in my job has an impact on the quality of infrastructure my country has; and that my work contributes to whether some families sleep hungry or have enough to eat. Being a faithful, efficient and effective Public Servant is one of the noblest of vocations one can be called to in life.