What is the toughest job in government? Try head of the public service in Iraq – mediating between three factions with their own internecine conflicts, wearing body armour while dodging bullets on the way to work, and building a public service where one didn’t exist.
Ali Muhsen Ismail, Dr. Alaaq, is Secretary General to Cabinet and head of the two million strong Iraqi public service, which includes 400,000 school teachers. He was in Ottawa last month with Frances Noronha, his Canadian advisor, to learn about Canadian public service, and to try to influence Canadian leaders to contribute more to Iraq’s development.
His main challenges:
1. staying alive: “We come into work each day, despite not knowing if we will be discovered and killed. I have been attacked and shot at twice.”
2. rebuilding from nothing: “In 2003 there was no one left in public service, the offices were empty, we even had to move in furniture. The advantage is we inherited no bad habits; it was a blank slate. The disadvantage – no one has experience. So how do you train, and manage performance. We are incubating good public service in ComSec, and spreading it out. For example, we did a training needs analysis. People were at first fearful to admit their needs for training.”
3. the brain drain: “Many people fled the previous regime, as did I. But few are coming back. And many are still leaving. We need to convince them to stay, and to return. We also need Canadians, and others from around the world, to bring their skills, especially in good public service.”
4. political appointments: “I have authority over public servants, except deputy ministers who are appointed by cabinet and approved by parliament. We want to move to a professional, non-partisan public service. But it is difficult with politically appointed DMs.”
He wants to make connections here. “Canadians are seen as good, neutral, honest, having useful federal experience, and being tolerant – able to work with different groups. My Prime Minister said he wants to see more of Canadians; we respect them. But what they have done so far is less visible, there is not a strong diplomatic presence. We don’t expect any military support, as you are engaged in Afghanistan, but there will be lots of room for Canadian businesses and trade and help building capacity in the future. Working with Canada can help us re-engage with the world, and maybe reverse the brain drain.”
He would like to see more Iraqis study in Canada and return to their homeland. Looking at the cover of last month’s CGE magazine, with the three young professionals, he said, “That’s what we need, to get young people committed to public service.”
The biggest question, of course, is security. The statistics show considerable reductions in violence in the last weeks and months. Some critics suggest this is a lull. Dr. Alaaq is more positive. “We can see the insurgency going down. There is no support for it in the populace. Especially in the west of the country, people are now starting to fight against Al Qaeda. We have no history of people participating in public affairs. Participation was missing. We were trained very much to follow orders, and frightened of using our own initiative. But lately, people, villagers, are getting together and telling Al Qaeda to get out. Of course, Al Qaeda responds by killing some of those leaders. But the message of resisting Al Qaeda is getting out, people are sharing stories of how that is being done. And it is spreading. And we are seeing more interest in working in the public service – there is more grassroots support. I expect in 18 to 24 months we will see significant results. We are starting to build success stories.”
He doesn’t see the US pulling out, but does expect a reduction. Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary General, recently visited and promised more developmental support. A security agreement between the US and Iraq is expected to be reached next year.
“If the citizens keep momentum in taking action against Al Qaeda, there will be less need for military support,” Dr. Alaaq observed. It was similar, we agreed, to cleaning up urban violence in North America. When citizens stay in their houses, lock their doors, leaving it all to the police, then the prostitutes and the drug dealers take over the streets. But when citizens work together with the police and other public services, progress is made. The same principles apply, except written in bold letters, with regards to the insurgency.
Dr. Alaaq’s closing comment was a request: “We have a huge need for skilled public servants. People are most welcome.”
There was an obvious warm, professional, respectful relationship between the Secretary and his Canadian advisor. Frances Noronha, a former ADM with the Ontario Public Service’s cabinet office, had worked on many corporate initiatives. She was recruited in 2005 to work in Afghanistan, and was then asked by the British Government to work in Iraq, an appointment reconfirmed by Gordon Brown, the new British Prime Minister. The Canadian International Development Agency has provided $10 million to fund the project.
Noronha is also cautiously optimistic: “I believe we are making a difference. I work with Iraqis, not the international community.”
She described the massive challenges that they faced. “Simple things like agendas and minutes didn’t exist. Cabinet meetings went on for 12 hours, with a full verbatim transcript. Each person wanted to make sure he was on the record. Cabinet is a combination of factions, not just one party. And there are divisions within each faction.”
She enjoys the work, and living with Iraqis. The biggest pain is the travel – wearing body armour, using circuitous routing, taking military planes, being delayed at checkpoints – but the major problem is infrastructure. Electricity is still only available four or five hours a day, oil to power generators is unavailable, and insurgents target any new infrastructure developments. Her schedule is six weeks on, two weeks off, out-of-country.
Noronha is most proud of the success of anti-corruption measures, led by Dr. Alaaq, and the fact that people can see that good public management practices can work. They are being incubated in the cabinet office and then spread to the rest of the public service.
Noronha and Alaaq agree that studying practices in Canada, Australia, the UK and the US is effective, but it is crucial that Iraqis examine the relevance to their setting, and adjust as needed. There is deep resentment toward consultants and donors who specify exactly how things must be done – and one major IT project is now floundering because the sponsors would accept no adjustments.
Specific priorities for the cabinet office include: moving to IT from a paper-driven system; building assessment tools to determine when managers are doing a good job; building a policy template; developing a learning plan for each employee; entrenching the code of ethics; focusing on priorities, beyond security, and allocating budgets based on those priorities.
They are doing leadership training, conflict resolution, and project management, including using 13 Days, a movie describing the Cuban Missile Crisis – and adopted techniques that are being used to defuse and manage border issues wi