The Man with the Key Has Gone is the title of a 1993 book that was written by the Irish-Ugandan doctor, Ian ‘Busulwa’ Clarke, describing mostly the times he worked as a missionary doctor in Kiwoko, present-day Nakaseke District.
It is perhaps through his work in Kiwoko that he ended up deciding to settle and live in Uganda permanently. Then again, I suppose, it was all good for us because Ian has gone on to immerse himself in Ugandan culture and social life, besides sharing his entrepreneurial and philanthropic skills. It is a nice read and I would recommend it.
I was reminded of the book because of a very frustrating eight months I have spent trying to resolve some business challenges. In the particular incident from which Ian derives the title of his partial autobiography, he recounts the tale of how they used to travel all the way to Kampala to procure drugs.
The process was so bureaucratic and they usually spent the whole day trying to get the allocation approved, well knowing they had to travel back on the bad roads to Kiwoko.
On this particular day, after an arduous five or so hours trying to obtain approvals for their drug allocation from the medical stores, they got to the drug custodian’s store only to be told - you guessed it right, ‘the man with the key has gone’.
Ian was exasperated and left wondering as to why the storekeeper had to keep the keys on his body. Could he not delegate? He goes on to note that everywhere he went, people failed to delegate and treated public offices and government supplies like personal property.
Because the man with the key was gone, Ian and his colleagues were forced to endure a cold night in Kampala.
The retelling of Ian’s experience may appear trite until you consider how our bad business culture prevents us from being competitive as a nation.
Because decisions do not get taken, money does not get spent and the economy moves at a snail’s pace because everywhere in the system there is a chap who ‘has gone with the key’!
In some central and local government offices, money already approved for development programmes is returned to the Consolidated Fund because the ‘man’ with the key is absent.
As a result of this tardiness, taxes do not get paid, loans do not get serviced and the whole systems fail to have any form of dynamism. But this problem is not restricted to the public service.
Even in the private sector (especially in corporate bureaucracies) you will encounter this kind of attitude. Plans or decisions and budgets that have been approved by the board do not get implemented as incompetent executives fumble and blunder around with obvious disregard to the economic harm they cause the aggregate economy.
While I may not be at liberty to retell my situation, I suppose there are some lessons we can take from this unenviable situation we sometimes find ourselves in.
First is that if you are in charge of a team, your goals are most effectively implemented by delegating and empowering your direct reports to do the tasks expected of you. Empowered subordinates are more likely to find job satisfaction and ensure that there is continuity in the organisation’s activities.
Second is that by training others to do your job, you too become more enabled to engage at the strategic and tactical level other than being a paper pusher. I recall entering the office of one ‘big’ official and finding the poor chap buried in a mountain of files which he would never be able to read even if he stayed in office for 40 years! Clearly, he was out of his depth.
Lastly, even if you refuse others to keep the ‘key’ in your temporary absence, your time in office is finite and someone will else will have to keep that ‘key’ whether you wish it or not.
Woe betide us if your successor is another unconscionable deadbeat!
Prof Sejjaaka is country team leader at Mat Abacus Business School.