After 14 years of civil war, Liberia in the early 2000s was a heavily damaged country. The government is said to have been dominated by corruption, few talented young people had the desire for a career in the public sector, and the education system had been severely disrupted.
But Africa’s first female elected head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, saw potential in another woman’s plan for change. To the age-old question of how to accelerate economic and social development, Betsy Williams had a new – and unexpected – answer: revolutionise the civil service.
Williams now lives back in her native US, but in the early days of Sirleaf’s presidency she was right at the heart of the Liberian government.
“I was in Liberia from 2007 to 2009 running a program called the Scott Family Fellows, which recruited expats, diaspora, and re-pats to Liberia to work with President Sirleaf,” she said. “Her election was a historical opportunity and the world really wanted to come and support.”
While the model of bringing in expertise from abroad to fill urgent human resources needs was working, as a long-term strategy the model had its flaws.
“We started to see that there were real gaps,” said Williams. “The ongoing mentoring and skills transfer we wanted from the expats and diaspora to local officials never really happened. They were so busy getting things done, like negotiating billions of dollars of debt relief. And there was no pathway or desire for young people or talent to get into government.”
“One woman that was placed in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs reduced the time it takes to process a passport from about one month to three days”
To fill those gaps, Williams and Sirleaf conceived of a new scheme in which talented young Liberians would be formally paired for mentorship and supervision with more senior public servants.
The idea was to build a network of problem-solvers across the civil service, with the training, skills and capacity to eventually become leaders and drivers of change. Over the last eight years, the President’s Young Professionals Program has recruited and placed 120 young leaders into Liberia’s public service across 15 ministries and 10 agencies.
A 2016 evaluation by Princeton University said the program “has been hugely successful in achieving its mission.” About 90% of alumni continue to work in government or are on government scholarships abroad and many have reached higher-level positions.
Alumni have progressed through the civil service far more quickly than their peers, and supervisors and mentors rated participants as top performers who are integral to their ministries’ operations.
“Having a really confident, trusted network of people across government was one of several reasons why Liberia ultimately got a hold of the Ebola crisis”
“We’ve had fellows who’ve become assistant ministers, councillors in embassies,” said Folorunso David, a program associate at PYPP’s new international iteration. “One woman that was placed in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs reduced the time it takes to process a passport from about one month to three days.”
The program has not focused on female talent specifically, and President Sirleaf has been critiqued from many sides for not doing enough for women. Yet, remarkably, there has been near gender parity in each class, and many of the women in the program have risen to positions of leadership.
“When you’re rebuilding something from the start you really have to take advantage of all your assets. One reason the women have been as successful as the men is our real central focus on creating a very meritocratic and competitive recruitment and selection process,” said Williams.
“I was sitting with President Sirleaf in New York and she said, ‘Betsy, we really should expand this model'”
Under President Sirleaf’s administration, Liberia has now become one of the world’s fastest-growing countries and has shown significant public health improvements, aided by a strong system of governance.
“I think that in the wake of the Ebola crisis, the importance of having a really confident, trusted network of people across government was one of several reasons why Liberia ultimately got a hold of it before its neighbours,” said Williams.
Now, the model is going continental. “I was sitting with President Sirleaf in New York and she said, ‘Betsy, we really should expand this model.'”
The idea of Emerging Public Leaders (EPL) is to build a new network of highly trained young public sector leaders – hundreds across Africa – with the skills and capacity to drive their countries to new levels of meritocracy, good governance, and efficient service delivery. The first three countries to launch, hopefully by the end of next year, will be Ghana, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast.
“There’s a lot of focus on leadership and entrepreneurship right now in Africa, but not on civil service”
Similar structural government challenges limit capacity across sub-Saharan Africa, with civil services that can be large, ageing, and under-qualified. But, according to Williams, nobody is prioritising this reform. “There’s a lot of focus on leadership and entrepreneurship right now in Africa, but not on civil service,” she said.
Replication is not without its challenges. One of these revolves around the curriculum: war-torn Liberia had different needs to the more stable countries.
“Liberia was very fragile. The education sector had suffered significantly – it was not uncommon to have a graduate without computer literacy,” said David. This has meant that, so far, the training has focused on the very basics.
“There’s a focus on really understanding the Microsoft Office Suite, things like how to effectively run a meeting, how to take notes, public speaking,” said Williams. “There’s also a really big piece on more personal things; negotiation, leadership, how to manage stress in the office and how to communicate better.”
One critique from the Princeton evaluation was that participants’ writing, reporting, and computer skills needed more development. And Liberia’s needs are quickly expanding.
“As Liberia transitions from a fragile country a more stable democracy, the training will involve more technical skills – things that government would traditionally recruit foreign consultants to do,” said David. “We feel there’s local capacity to do these things, like impact evaluation or public finance management.”
“I think it’s going to have exponential impact, to be very honest”
In other countries, other adaptations will also be required. “Ghana has a very paternalistic civil service, so ensuring that we can attract and retain females in government is critical. As a female you can get frustrated and not feel as welcomed as you should,” said David.
While the program is fairly low-cost – at around $500,000 – sustainable funding also remains a challenge. The end goal is a model in which government, private philanthropy, and development partners like USAID contribute an equal share. Last year, the Liberian government paid a third party and private philanthropy the rest.
Nonetheless, Williams’ ambition – and confidence – is powerful. “I think it’s going to have exponential impact, to be very honest,” she said. “Our goal is to have hundreds of fellows working across five countries in the region – that’s suddenly a huge network of really valued, competent civil service leaders who will have the skills and approach to really help accelerate economic and social development.”
“If each year you add more and more people, you’re going to help improve government performance, to help it work with the private sector, help it enact regulation, and help deliver on critical services.”