A lot has been said and written about post-conflict Liberia’s broken civil service and capacity void, but—at the risk of sounding self-pitying—I believe that no ministry felt the impact as severely as the Ministry of Finance at the dawn of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s first administration in January 2006.
There we were with the imperative of rapidly obtaining debt relief and quickly delivering tangible improvements in our country’s finances and living conditions—with little capacity and debilitating corruption. I had returned to lead a ministry with many ghost workers—people on the payroll in name but not in body—and post-retirement-age employees. A number of senior staff had, at best, a substandard high school education. Some otherwise capable people were appointees of Charles Taylor and the transitional governments whose capacity had previously been directed towards creative means of defrauding the state!
In need of quick fixes across the government, I think it’s fair to say that both our administration and our international partners were slow to fully embrace civil service reform and institution-building. The wealth of technical assistance under the Governance and Economic Management Assistance Program (GEMAP) and other programs certainly helped us move our reform efforts forward, but it built little sustained capacity. Progress was made in payroll clean-up and limited organizational restructurings here and there, but we were simply too focused on getting things done in those early years to tackle the difficult business of comprehensive civil service reform and institution-building.
At the Ministry of Finance, we repeatedly stated that these were critical long-term objectives, but we were inevitably constantly consumed with putting out fires. So to create some desperately needed fiscal space, we worked to remove ghosts and staff beyond retirement age from the payroll. As head of the first ministry to wrestle with the latter problem, I was smeared as the “heartless” minister who targeted aged staff who were terrified of facing irregular, measly pensions. To fill critical capacity holes, we pounced on the various donor and philanthropy-financed initiatives, including Transfer of Knowledge Through Expatriate Nationals (TOKTEN); expatriate advisors under GEMAP; an outstanding Mozambican advisor to the minister financed by the World Bank; the Senior Executive Service program; and the Scott Family Liberia Fellows Program and Harvard’s Kennedy School MPAID summer interns, both of which provided extremely bright and energetic young expatriate staff.
These last two programs would eventually inspire the development of the President’s Young Professionals Program, or PYPP, which continues to help strengthen Liberia’s civil service today. Through a transparent and meritocratic process, the PYPP recruits, trains, and places top university graduates throughout the government. Since its establishment in 2009, more than 120 fellows have been recruited into the Liberian civil service through the PYPP, including 19 in the Ministry of Finance and 7 in the Liberia Revenue Authority. More than 90 percent of these fellows remain in government today and the majority of those still serving have risen to positions of greater responsibility.
As Liberia begins its transition to a post-Sirleaf government, the PYPP will no doubt come to be appreciated as one of her noteworthy achievements. The incoming minister of finance will certainly find herself or himself with more capacity at the junior and middle ranks of the ministry than I did in 2006. I have high hopes that this inheritance will convince the new administration to fully own and safeguard the PYPP as an important component of an institution-building strategy for Liberia. As the PYPP model begins to expand to Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire under the banner of the Emerging Public Leaders (EPL) program, I expect that in time other ministers of finance will consider how this promising program can help address their particular capacity development needs.
Yet I can’t resist this opportunity to spell out the four reasons why PYPP and EPL-type programs could be especially suited to the evolving capacity needs of ministries of finance in constrained resource environments: attracting young talent; adaptability to digitalized public finance; cost-effectiveness; and building integrity.
With few graduate-level applicants and stiff competition for young talent from commercial banks and other private sector establishments, deliberate efforts to attract the brightest graduates from local universities into ministries of finance are necessary (assuming hiring into the civil service is not frozen). Career-building incentives in the form of opportunities for professional growth, mentorship, and performance management can be valued as attractive supplements to otherwise moderate financial compensation and increase retention.
The ongoing digitalization of public finance underscores the need for skilled staff that adapt comfortably and productively to a more technology-dependent revenue administration and public financial management system. Such staff are more likely to be young people, many of whom are “digital natives” more conversant with technology than current older civil servants.
PYPP and EPL-type programs can render young fellows highly cost-effective when compared to internationally recruited (junior) technical consultants. At an annual cost of $15,000 per fellow in Liberia, these programs can be more cost-effective than other models of technical support and capacity-building.
Last but not least, the meritocratic recruitment process and focus on integrity in PYPP and EPL training can help develop a cohort of young civil servants that contribute to the fight against corruption and increase the credibility of ministries of finance in that connection.
Civil service reform and institution-building will forever remain fraught with political pitfalls and resistance. So when low-cost innovations can help move them a few steps forward, ministers of finance in resource-constrained environments should eagerly embrace them.
 GEMAP was international partners’ response to the record of corruption and bad governance of the transitional government prior to President Sirleaf’s election. It placed financial controllers in key state-owned enterprises, a financial expert in the Central Bank of Liberia, financial experts in the cash management committee at the Ministry of Finance, and a budget adviser at the then-autonomous Bureau of the Budget. With a focus on controls and the co-signing authority given to these experts, GEMAP was very controversial but ultimately helpful (“a necessary intrusion” in the words of the president).
 See Gupta, Keen, Shah, and Verdier Digital Revolutions in Public Finance, International Monetary Fund, 2017.