On many occasions, it has been a case that a public officer is different from the office he or she holds, and any decisions he or she takes, is taken by the office and not by the public servant.
Article 171 of the 1995 Constitution of Uganda creates the public office as an establishment that is mandated to assist with the implementation of government projects. In other words, it was envisioned to be the machinery of government that puts into existence government policies and projects. The public office would not otherwise achieve their mandate without personnel, therefore Article 172 of the 1995 Constitution of Uganda provided for public officers as personnel that would assist achieve the mandate of the public office.
Given this mandate, the constitution and the other laws such as the Public Service Act 2008 were enacted by the parliament to facilitate the mandate of public servants. Notably, the act provides that public officers should be people of good character holding the highest most values in the society. The essence of this was to have persons in the public sector that are of great character capable of serving the public without any reservations. These requirements are also envisioned in regulations and laws that regulate the public service such as the Code of Conduct and Ethics for Uganda Public Service 2016, the Uganda Public Service Standing Orders 2020 among other regulations.
But before they embark on the various roles and duties assigned to them, public officers are required to undertake an oath of allegiance to the government but also one for allegiance to the public. This is because they work for the government and for the public. The significance of the oath is that; they hold holy books and make promises. The promises made through oaths cannot thereby be taken back or even disrespected as it would amount to a betrayal to God, the public and the government.
That mentioned, what gauges the work done by public officers are two canons of rule of law which are accountability and transparency. It is only through these two concepts that the public and the government can confirm that public officers have executed their mandates to their fullest. In scenarios where this is not done, it cannot be said that they are doing their work.
On many occasions though, the actions and decisions taken by public officers have affected the well being of the public, “their bosses”. An example of these decisions range from decisions on taxes that are imposed on the public, decisions of how for instance the pandemic has been currently handled, decisions on who deals with the government to extend services to the public among other decisions, are some of the examples to ponder about when looking at decisions of public officers that require accountability and transparency.
Unfortunately, the 1995 Constitution of Uganda and the Public Service Act 2008 only gives protection to public officers. Nowhere in the legal framework are safe guards that question decisions of public servants or safe guards that provide for instances where they are answerable for their actions. It is unfair for the public if such decisions are not accounted for or even questioned. Protection of public officers only, is one-sided on the part of the public servants. Not only does it give public officers a lee way to act in any manner they wish, it also affects service delivery. Consequently, it is the public that suffers, and yet ironically public servants are servants of the public.
Recently, the case between Dr Eng. John Tumwesigye versus The Attorney General and another was dismissed. This case considered the permanent secretary’s decision to cancel a contract that was meant for construction and equipping of the International Hospital of Uganda. The judge was of the view that, the public officer did not drift into her own frolic to make her personally liable when she cancelled that contract. He went on to state that in any case the orders the complainant had requested court to order would not be exercisable on the public officer but on the office he or she held. But wait, if the orders are excisable on the office and not the officer, where does it leave the officer who is currently occupying that office? Does it mean that in the case a new public officer assumes that particular office he or she takes on the burdens of that office he or she was not part of. In this judgement, the judge clearly separates the public office from the officer occupying it.
We should pick a leaf from other countries whose adherence to rule of law is definite. The benefits of a country that strives on rule of law are many and it benefits the public. Countries like the UK, the United States through accountability and transparency question the decisions some of these public officers take. This has greatly improved the quality of service delivery from the government and particularly the public service.
In conclusion, public officers are owed by the public merely because public officers hold these offices in trust for the public. That’s why they are termed as public servants. They are meant to serve the public. With that said, the decisions they make affect the public in so many aspects and as such they need to be answerable for all decisions they take. Much as they are protected from victimisation when they have performed their duties diligently, I believe they also need to be answerable and accountable when it comes to the decisions they take. Such accountability and transparency will improve on service delivery and proper implementation of government projects and in the long run uphold the rule of law in the country.