Reflections – my first meeting with the Cabinet.

On or about June 10, 2009, a few days before the official start of my portfolio as Deputy National Coordinator of the LRDC, Minister Konneh asked me to join his team (Sebastian Muah, Boom Wilson, Henrique Wilson, etc) at the LRDC Steering Committee meeting which was chaired by the President, H.E. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. At this meeting, Minister Konneh was releasing the first year’s (April 2008 – March 2009) Annual Progress Report on the implementation of the Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS).

The report presented by Minister Konneh showed that only 21% of interventions had been completed during the first year of the PRS. This was a terrible news and it meant that I had a huge task ahead of me.

At that meeting, I was introduced by Minister Konneh to the Steering Committee. The President asked me to say a few words. I extended greetings, called my name, and indicated that I was ready to do my best in serving my country. My big brother, Minister Kofi Woods, was there and afterwards he congratulated me.

Again, though I was a founding ideologue of the CDC but I considered myself a Neo Progressive and so it didn’t matter to me whose agenda was being implemented so long as the Liberian people would be the beneficiaries of the interventions. Politics did not occur to me. All I wanted to do was an exceptionally good job so that one day, I will be a footnote on a page when the history books are written.

To take on the huge task that was ahead of me, I decided that organizing a cabinet retreat that would bring everyone together to review the strategy and decide on how we would improve implementation and deliver on our mandates would be great idea. To achieve this, I would need the full, undivided attention of the entire Cabinet because they are the owners of the process. I thought that it was important for them to understand the various interventions, resource required and deadline so that when the Pillar Technical Advisors (PTAs) who worked with me or the PRS Champion in their agency approached them, the ministers would have an idea of what they were talking about. I needed to draw that connection at the highest level of the Government.

Well, my boss, Minister Amara Konneh, decided that I should go the Cabinet meeting and make the case for the retreat. He wanted me to convince the President and the Cabinet on why I needed the entire cabinet at the retreat for three (3) days.

Well, so in August 2009 (around the 3rd or 4th), I walked into the Cabinet room, set up the projector and made available printed copies of my presentation to members of the President’s Cabinet. The practice was that you would be in the cabinet waiting room until it was your time to make your presentation and then you would be ushered in.

It was my time and I was ushered in. I began making my presentation by first discussing the first year Annual Progress Report and the dismal performance. I then moved onto what was needed to improve performance and then what I needed from the cabinet. This was tricky!

Everyone enjoyed the presentation until I reached the point where I requested that every Cabinet Minister include deputy and assistant ministers along with relevant directors should leave everything that they were doing on Thursday, Friday and Saturday (August 13 – 15) to be present at the Baptist Seminary for the comprehensive review of the Poverty Reduction Strategy document and all the interventions contained therein.

Just as I completed making the request, Minister Samukai, the Defense Minister of the Republic of Liberia, jumped in and asked “young man, do want us to shut down the entire government in order to attend a retreat?” This was one of the toughest questions I had been asked to date. How can an opposition figure answer YES to such a question? And with such a question coming from a member of the national security team, it made it even more terrifying. Besides, if you know Minister Samukai and how authoritative and commanding his words can be, you will understand my position. Even my boss, Amara Konneh, could not answer the question. Something told me that to say yes, given my politics, could be seen a treason. Silence was the only response I could offer.

I was not ready to let my politics or its appearance get in the way of what we were about to achieve.

With total silence in the room, Madam President jumped in and said YES! Everyone will be there. Everyone will leave whatever they are doing and be at the Retreat.

Well, the rest is history! We did that wonderful Cabinet Retreat at the Baptist Seminary. It ran from Thursday, August 13 to Saturday, August 15, 2009.

For me, the President’s keen attention to the details of the presentation; the reason for my request that the entire cabinet should be present; and the decisiveness in responding to a critical question that had the propensity to derail the work, impressed and motivated me even more. Only the President could answer that question.

Let me be quick to clarify that Minister Samukai, a Fulbright scholar and economist, is one of the finest public servants I have met. My mention of him is just to recount what happened and nothing else. I have the fullest respect and admiration for him. He knew my late father, Col. James F. Kollie, from the Armed Forces of Liberia.

Stay tuned…

In the next piece, I will talk about the Cabinet Retreat. I will go into details about the planning that goes into the holding of a cabinet retreat and what the outcome should look like when thoughtfully planned and executed. A cabinet retreat is a big deal and it should be kept that way…

Regarding my ‘Reflections’…

I thought I made sufficient efforts to provide the context of reflecting on my decade-long public service but it seems that I failed.

The true purpose is not to provide a commentary on anything that is happening today but to narrate my experience so that those who aspire to leadership in the future can understand and appreciate the mistakes that we made so that they may not make the same, exact mistakes.

It is not intended for those who are already in leadership…

In the first two posts, I was narrating the beginning of how my public service started.

In my next post, I will talk about my first interaction with the President’s cabinet. The opposition, buzzy boy was given the opportunity to address the cabinet and make a call-to-action. I will narrate how it went down…

Stay tuned…

Reflections – the context and the beginning of my decade-long public service

Whenever you are lost and don’t know where to start from; it is always a good thing to start at the beginning. It also always good to provide context to what you are about to explain so that people who don’t know much about the subject matter can appreciate the utility of the story.

Here is how my decade-long public service in Liberia started…

It was 0n Thursday, 29 January 2009 that I received an email from Mr. Ignatius Geegbae, Administrative Assistant at the UNDP who was working on the TOKTEN program, inviting me to interview for the position of Deputy National Coordinator of the Liberia Reconstruction and Development Committee (LRDC). He wrote that the interview was scheduled for 4 February 2009 at 11″00 AM. I didn’t know what the LRDC was and so I asked him to send me the ToR for my review. I also do not know how he got my CV and I have never asked him to this date.

After reviewing the ToR, I agreed to do the interview. The interesting thing is that a few days earlier, I had given my employer (Merrill Corporation) my ‘two-week’ notice that I would be leaving my position on Friday, 13 February 2009. And so, an interview for a job in Liberia that was scheduled for 4 February 2009 was like a miracle. Besides, the ToR looked interesting. The LRDC sounded like our Office of Agenda Management (OAM) that we had conceptualized during the founding of the CDC. Or maybe, it was really only Dtweah and I who conceptualized that whole OAM thing because it seems that no one else in the movement even appreciated that concept or attached any value to it. But well, we were excited about it, then and so the LRDC gig looked more fascinating to me.

On 3 February 2009, Mr. Geegbae informed me that the interview had been cancelled and that they would get back to me in due course. This, however, did not bother me much or affected my plans because I was already set to leave my job on 13 February 2009 and fly to Monrovia on 7 March 2009. I really did have other things lined up for Monrovia and so the LRDC gig was just a bonus.

When that day came in March 2009, I packed my bag and boarded the Lufthansa flight for Accra. I stopped over in Accra for a week so that I could see my son who was schooling in Accra. I had left him in Accra in September 2008 to do one year of schoolwork in Accra.

After the week in Accra, I flew to Monrovia as planned. And later in May 2009, the UNDP invited six (6) persons including me to interview for the position of Deputy National Coordinator of the LRDC. Three (3) of us were in Monrovia and the other three (3) persons were in the US. It was a written test. After the test, they informed me that I passed the test and was shortlisted for the oral interview. They informed me that three (3) persons were shortlisted for the interview and because one (1) person was oversea, they would do a phone interview so that no one had an advantage in in-person contact with the interviewers. At the appointed time, they called, and we did the interview by phone. I thought it went well because I had spent time reading the Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS) and understood what it was all about. It had its shortcoming but like every strategy, it is the implementation that matters.

The UNDP later informed me that the names of two (2) persons had been forwarded to the Minister of Planning and Economic Affairs to make final decision. I later found out it was Lawrence Morris (the Honorable) who was the other person on the list.

The Minister of Planning, Amara Konneh, whom I didn’t know and had not met before, was the one we were waiting on for the final decision. Well, he decided, after few weeks, that he would give us another test before making his decision. We met at the Ministry on Saturday, 6 June 2009 for a written test and a PowerPoint presentation. I finished first and left. Later that evening, I got a call from Mr. Edward Essiah, Chief of Staff to the Minister of Planning, that the Minister had decided to offer me the position and that I should report to the Ministry on Monday, 8 June 2009. And I did! Later, I got my official letter of employment which indicated that as of 15 June 2009, I was employed as the Deputy National Coordinator of the LRDC with direct reporting responsibility to the Minister of Planning and Economic Affairs who was the National Coordination of the LRDC. Off course, the President was the Chairperson of the National Steering Committee of the LRDC.

The LRDC was the forum that brought that all the stakeholders (government, diplomatic missions, development partners, civil society, NGOs, etc) together to implement the PRS.

After the rigor of the interview process, the Government of Liberia decided that they would take a radical, opposition ideologue like me to run and manage the Secretariat responsible for the implementation of their development agenda. I want you to imagine this for a bit and reflect very deeply: the guy who considers himself a ‘founding ideologue’ of the largest opposition party that inarguable won the first round of the elections in 2005 is now hired by the Government to run its development program. Hmmmm! Don’t take this lightly! Imagine again! I am James Kollie, a founding ideologue of the CDC. I am not a founding member. Whenever someone refers to me as a founding member, I feel insulted.

Well, it happened. And this was not in a vacuum because many of the actors knew me. I was never on the closest when it came to the establishment of the CDC. I was the Secretary General of the CDC-USA. I managed the CDC website and responded to inquiries as well as critiques. I was active on Limany and The Perspective websites. I was very active on all the Liberian listserv and in all chatrooms. I was a General who was on the battle front. I didn’t only strategize; I executed battlefield plans.

Everyone who was paying attention to Liberian politics at that time knew me and/or interacted with me. Even after I left the CDC on 16 February 2006, I moved directly into championing the establishment of the Neo Progressive Movement so I wasn’t an unknown quantity insofar as my opposition political views were concerned.

However, Minister Konneh and President Sirleaf decided that they would take their bet with me. They apparently saw some value or quality in me that they were willing to overlook my politics and utilize my expertise. They knew that the benefits outweigh the risks of having me run the implementation of the country’s development agenda. That is true leadership! They went for talent and capacity over political loyalty. They wanted to get stuff done and they knew that James Kollie could help them. There are many James Kollie out there.

Well, for whatever it is worth, I was given the opportunity to contribute to my motherland. I had convinced myself, as a Neo Progressive, that helping my country was more important than my political view of any particular persons and so I put my all into doing the job of coordinating the implementation of the development agenda. I wasn’t concern whether it made President Sirleaf looked good or not; I was concerned about whether a Liberian child in Toe’s town would benefit from one more clinic or one more school. And if because of my coordinating effort, one more mile of road was paved, it didn’t matter who was the President when it happened. What mattered the most was that it got done and that child benefited.

The lesson here is that we should always, not some time, go for capacity and competence over political view and loyalty. I am a perfect example of someone overlooking my political worldview and position and extending to me the opportunity to make my contribution to my country.

The position that I occupied between June 2009 and March 2012 as Deputy National Coordinator of the LRDC was an extremely important position. It wasn’t high profile, but it was extremely important and critical. It was like sitting in the President’s office and managing the development agenda. For an opposition kid to have been given that opportunity is indeed a lesson in governance. It meant that after the campaigning was over and governance started, the country needed folks who could deliver, and the leaders saw me as one of those persons. I had gone through several interviews and came highly recommended. I had shown my capability and the leaders noticed. Though they were warned of my politics, they decided that I was worth more to them than the portrayal of my political views.

This is how my decade-long public service began in Liberia and this is one lesson to be learned from that beginning…

Remember! I wasn’t just another Liberian. I was a political figure with very strong views. It wasn’t like just bring another person on board who is not in our party; it was bringing on a key opposition figure into a critical role. This is not accommodation; it is leadership that believe that in talents.

And no one ever asked me to join their party before I could get this gig or continue with it! Absolutely no one. And I never joined the Unity Party.

stay tune…

Reflections on my 10.5 years public service in Liberia: the mistakes, challenges and opportunities

In the next few weeks and months, I will be reflecting on my ten and one-half years in the public service in Liberia. By no means was it easy and/or perfect but I think it is important to share my reflections on the challenges.

It has been nearly three (3) years and I think the temperature is about right that we begin to share our lived experiences so that those who care can learn something – anything – from it.

I will not endeavor to teach anyone for I believe that I am not qualify but at least I can share my experiences in terms of the mistakes we made so that others cannot make those same exact mistakes. If nothing else, I think understanding the mistakes we made might provide valuable insights into what others should not do. I may not know or have the right solutions but at least I can explain my mistakes so that others don’t have to repeat them.

Like many other progressive young people, I considered myself a radical advocate and a Neo progressive. And let me repeat, I am a “founding ideologue” of the grassroots progressive movement, the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC). Though in February 2006 I resigned my membership and position as Secretary General of CDC-USA, everyone believed that I never left the Movement because I kept my relationship with all the colleagues and friends.

Also, I was never a member of the Unity Party (UP) and in fact, folks in the UP called me “that CDC man”. Even though today the folks in the CDC call me “that UP guy”, I am not bothered by either for I am my own man: a Neo Progressive with deep thoughts, philosophies and principles. I apologize to no one for my political moves.

Be that as it may, I think the Liberian people deserve to understand the mistakes we made during the period they entrusted us with leadership and I want to do that. If not for anything else but that others may not make those same, exact mistakes. It will be painful and a betrayal if others repeat the mistakes we made simply because we didn’t tell our story.

stay tune….