The frontline workers: An overlooked human resource

The Covid-19 and the related lockdown have focused the nation’s attention on two groups of people who number in millions but have still somehow not received adequate attention: the informal workers and the frontline workers ofSierra Leone.

In this article, drawing from his experience, Emmanuel Dauda (PhD) Management and Organization and a Senior Administrator, Njala University, talks about the great but overlooked human resource of frontline workers, and recounts the practical problems that they face in carrying out government orders.

The Covid-19 and the related lockdown have brought the nation’s focus on two groups of people that number in millions, but have still somehow not received adequate attention so far, to the extent that they should have. The first are the informal workers, spread all over Sierra Leone, but particularly in our bustling metropolitan cities (Freetown, Bo, Kenema and Makani). In fact, if we study in depth, we find that they are the ones quietly oiling the economic engine, even though they are grossly underestimated for the work they do.

The second category is that of the frontline workers of the administration– the salaried employees of the government of Sierra Leone and the local council administration. Increasingly, these workers are also hired on contractual route.

Naturally,the health workers– both hospital-based clinical workers and the health extension workers – are now the cynosure of attention and the heroines of the day (most of them are women), and deserve a big clap.

Frontline workers are the Government’s first line of interaction with the public. For the man in the street, they are the real governmentand the way in which the frontline workers deal with him colours his view of the government itself in its totality. Ordinary people in Sierra Leone thus ‘experience’ their government through the frontline workers, rather than understand it intellectually, so to say.

Two categories of frontline workers
We can divide frontline workers into two categories. The first category is that of the regulatory ones – like police constables, private Soldiers, revenue persons, the various types of regulatory and compliance inspectors for labour laws, shops and establishments, weights and measures, motor vehicle inspectors, local council tax and house inspectors, and so on.(We will keep the police constables and soldiers apart for this discussion as they are a special type altogether!)People, in their own self-interest, are very polite and obedient before frontline regulatory workers, because of the latter’s capacity for harassing them, but behind their backs they think of them as inefficient, boorish, and insult them.

To their credit, in the recent time, the government have been trying to reduce the discretionary power of these regulatory frontline workers by effectively using technology such as computerisation of records, online applications, time-bound delivery of certificates and approvals, outsourcing of various services, direct benefit transfers (example mobile money payment) and even enacting the ‘Right to Services Act’.The ‘Right to Information (RTI) Act’ has also helped.

To attract investments, government have to show how business friendly they are, and thus try to remove hurdles at the cutting edge, but such is the power of bureaucracy to entangle, that while one obstacle is removed by a department, another department quietly adds another hurdle in routine fashion.

The other category of frontline workers is that of the development workers, who do not have might of the law behind them like their regulatory counterparts. These are the health extension workers, sanitary inspectors, solid and liquid waste cleaning staff of local bodies, agriculture assistantsand others.

Both these categories become ‘special’ and centres of attention in times of natural calamity, such as floods or mud slide, when they are on their toes to prevent damage by moving people tosafe places or by post-calamity relief.The health workers are stretched, for example, when there is a sudden local Ebola epidemic, or malnutrition deaths reported in media.

The agricultural extension officer takes full load when there is an unusual pest attack on a crop in his region. All of them are fighting fire during such situations. At these times, the bigger challenge facing the frontline workers is not the problem itself, but the hordes of VIP visitors and top officers from different departments who visit the hotspots over and over again, without adding value and adding to the confusion, not giving them time and space to improve things in the short span.

There is also increasing media pressure, which wants bytes every hour.
There are also special time-bound events, such as the Census and elections, when all these frontline workers are mobilised. During those weeks, their regular work goes for a toss.

To their credit, all these frontline workers generally rise up to the occasion when they have to perform within a time-frame, and are continuously watched by their political and administrative masters and the media.There are some stories of quiet heroism, anecdotal, and worth telling. The country first democratic general elections in 1996, when the civil war was ranging virtually in very corner of Sierra Leone, frontline workers crossed rebel-controlterritories and streams with ballot boxes on their heads to reach the election booths on time.

During 2014 Ebolaepidemic,many health workers themselves suffered deathor stigma and fear that have characterized the epidemic but camefor work putting behind their personal sorrows. They had to do their duty, as they alone knew about fighting disease.After the Freetown mudslide tragedy (2017), itwas realised that there were a huge number of people buried under the rubble.

It was frontline workers, bearing the unbearable stench, used their barehands to search for survivals and dead before international helps arrived.
The frontline workers are continuously pulled – sometimes in contradictory directions – by masters: the political master and their own administrative bosses.

The smart ones among the frontline workers intuitively know the old saying that a slave who has two masters is free! As a management expert and senior administrator in Njala University, I always found senior colleagues blaming the junior workers for non-cooperation, and the junior workers doing the reverse. I still have to figure it out who is correct, but I know for sure that if they are given only one cup of tea, they will definitely share it.

Even corruption at their level happens largely due to extraneous causes. Forone, they have to spend substantially on work-related travel, such as frequent visits to their head offices – for which their claims are kept pending, as budgetary grants for other than salaries are always inadequate. It is very sad to see sincere, lady health workers not being reimbursed for months their actual bonus. No wonder, they find devious ways to make up for this shortfall.

A great human resource
Doctors classify health issues as acute and chronic. In acute cases (such as continuous fever, bleeding, etc.) the patient has to be treated quickly or else he will die. Chronic illness are ones that are lifelong, which have to be endured. The patient takes medicines, but also learns to live with it. Using this analogy,our frontline workers, somehow rise up to handle acute (read crisis) situations pretty well, but then things go back to ‘business as usual’, and we learn to live with them.

Why they don’t show the same care and sensitivity all year round, is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Perhaps, an insight into this will help to understand the Sierra Leone psyche as well?

In management literature, there are plenty of books and scholarly studies about the higher bureaucracy (Sierra Leone Civil and public Service not an expectation). Additionally, you have memoirs and insider stories. But surprisingly, there is hardly any study done on the millions of our frontline workers, or any 360-degree human resource analysis.

One must concede that there is a distinct cultural bias, as the frontline workers’ eventual delivery on the field is as important as good policymaking. In fact, proof of the pudding is in the eating.

From historical preoperative, humans tend to wake up only after the problem has occurred. In March 1991, there wasthe outbreak of a rebel war in Sierra Leone, which resulted in an estimated 70,000 casualties and 2.6 million displaced people. Effective prosecution of the war impacted negatively on the security forces, it was discovered that theylack ability to effectively defend the state and its citizens.

After the war in 2002, the wise realised that thequality of state security architecture was important. The Office of National Security (ONS),which focuses on national security, was created in its previous avatar then.

One hopes that post Covid-19, policy experts who speak on‘strengthening government capacity’ and create public health training centres, or the Civil service training centresthat give our frontline workers the attention they deserve. They are a great human resource that can be upgraded quickly and quietly at a low cost.

Emmanuel Dauda (Cell: +23276 856-851; edauda@njala.edu.sl)

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