Once upon a time there was a country which had only one restaurant. All the people in that country had to eat in that restaurant, so thousands went there every day.
But the service was a bit of a problem. People who were hungry had to wait for hours, and in some cases even days. There did not seem to be an order to things. Some people who arrived late got service quicker, a few others got particularly big plates of food, but most suffered more or less silently.
They did not dare to ask questions of the waiters or managers. Experience showed that it did not help. Those who had asked in the past had been told ‘be patient’, ‘don’t you see I am busy’, ‘come back tomorrow’ or ‘we have lost your order’. Others were told ‘come back tomorrow’ or ‘who are you anyway?’ The customers paid ‘a little something’ to expedite the order, or waited, take your pick.
When the food did arrive, often it wasn’t very good. It wasn’t very balanced or healthy, at times it wasn’t clean, and usually it wasn’t enough—especially in the second half of the month because the restaurant had ‘run out of supplies’. You had to pay anyway, though some waiters charged a little less if you agreed not to demand a receipt, right underneath posters exclaiming ‘this is a corruption free zone’.
One day the restaurant owner passed by, and became quite alarmed. He called a meeting of all the managers and told them things had to change. The managers were to remember that ‘customers were king and queen’. Service had to improve, and there was to be more accountability. New rules were issued, including a code of ethics for managers, a manual for waiters. There was even a ‘client service charter’, that explained the restaurant values and its obligations to customers, though most of the customers never got to see it.
Afterwards, there was some difference. Several managers worked really hard to make their part better organized than before. Some of the waiters were more alert and kind to customers, though they could do little about delays in the kitchen or the mosquitoes. But for many others it was business as usual. Another problem was that a lot of the managers and a few waiters always seemed to be away for capacity building seminars. They would come back with lots of files and papers on improving restaurant services, but kept the little brown envelopes for themselves.
The funny thing was that it did not seem to matter if you treated the customers well or did your job right. The incompetent and uncaring staff always got their salaries, and were not held accountable. The hard working ones got the same as the rest, and no special recognition. If anything, the other staff ridiculed them, saying ‘you think you are better than us’, ‘you think you are smarter’, etc… and so after a while even they stopped taking initiative, asking questions or going out of their way to make the restaurant work better.
The newspapers kept reporting about the continued problems at the restaurant, so everyone was aware. This time a team of expert consultants was hired, with funding from donors. They interviewed a lot of the customers and managers and wrote large reports. A strategy was developed with a Swahili name to show it was locally owned – MKUKUHUMGA (Mkakati wa Kuboresha Uwajibikaji na Huduma za Mgahawa) More capacity building seminars were done. Managers went abroad on exchange visits. Codes of ethics, manuals and client service charters were all updated.
But life for most of the restaurant customers did not improve. The food was mostly poor and the service bad. And despite all the tough talk about accountability, the rules were rarely enforced. The reality was that it did not matter whether the managers or waiters did their job or not. There appeared to be no consequences; at most a few of the really bad ones were transferred.
All this puzzled the frogs, who lived at the edge of the restaurant, immensely. “Instead of all the rules, guidelines and seminars”, observed one frog, “why don’t they just get their incentives right – reward those who do well and sanction those who don’t?” “Moreover,” quipped another frog, “and why not give power to the customers to hold the staff accountable?”
* Rakesh Rajani is the executive director at HakiElimu (http://www.hakielimu.org/)
* Please send comments to or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org/