Public Leadership

The type that everyone everywhere would love to have

There was the news that this week Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore, was on a short visit to Mauritius. The Government of Mauritius appears to have approached the Government of Singapore with a view to obtaining support for imparting training to our public service. The DPM was here in this connection.

Mr Shanmugaratnam, from the little I know of him personally at the time he was heading the Monetary Authority of Singapore, is a sharp and highly effective executive of the no-nonsense type. And Singapore is a place that doesn’t easily give such high responsibility except to a person of proven competence evaluated in several rounds of tough decision-making during an entire career. Leaders don’t just spring up from nowhere.

Leaders are carefully selected over there on the basis of their continuing proof of performance, their mental consistency, depth of understanding of issues and, more than anything else, of strong track record of achievements in their fields. There’s always available in Singapore a storehouse of such meticulously groomed-up proven leaders – in politics and in different walks of life — who can competently and very ably take over from those from the previous generation. Mr Shanmugaratnam’s current position as Singapore DPM is part of this system which doesn’t admit mediocrity in positions requiring state decision-making.

Time to get over the management deficit

Our own public service was born in this stern tradition of high performance under British rule. Not surprisingly, the public service in Mauritius has been at the basis of much of the economic and social progress we’ve made. It is very important that it should be beefed up to deliver service to the highest international standards. If Singapore can put us back on track, we should go for it.

Many incoherencies and below par performance have surfaced up lately which unfortunately cast a bad image on the entire public service. It discourages even those who are capable and competent. Our public servants are not intrinsically inferior to any other. They need to be given the opportunity to prove their mettle. The government’s initiative, if only it would make possible again the renewal of the best and most capable among the men and women in command from within the ranks of the public service, may radically improve the country’s performance.

Some decades ago, our public servants of high standing were regarded as role models for society. They were given due credit for their achievements. The system was such that there were aligned, within the departments, several potential successors to the top posts, who could skilfully do ample justice to the job on hand.

Thus, the leadership passed on into trusted and experienced hands from within the public institutions – there might have been a black sheep or two but professional integrity of public servants was rarely, if ever, called into question publicly. Public servants were remunerated adequately enough so as not to seek to take unfair advantage of their position. Merits were rewarded. The men and women in service would therefore do all they could to rise to the occasion.

This is how those who were the best in every field of endeavour in the country were publicly known for their honesty, integrity, drive and efficiency. The good public standing of exceptional performers in the service was widely known and appreciated, e.g., those who brought the Agricultural Bank (later DBM) into existence for wider-ranging development, who fought it out to create a Cooperative Department for small producers, introduced a Poor Law Office for public welfare in the country.

A solid reputation had built up across all departments for those who were great performers, whether among teachers in public schools, judges in our courts or top civil servants in the government departments (now ministries). Public servants were trusted and feared at the same time. They would not bend rules or transgress them or, worse, devise ways how to go around them to defeat the very purpose for which those rules had initially been laid down.

Somehow, this well-run system got diluted along the way. Many suspect that the reason for this situation has been undue political interference of the wrong type. Political correctness of appointees would accordingly have extracted a heavy ransom by successively bringing down public sector service to sub-standard.

The sense of respect which, detached, motivated and well-meaning service and its objectivity inspired at one time and was the hallmark of our public service, appears to have given way. This deficit can potentially further impair the efficiency of critical public service for the advancement of the nation. It should be overcome.

The deficits to overcome

From the point one lands in Singapore to the last, one has a feeling that no responsibility is left to chance. Rules are clear. The system operates itself out smoothly at different levels, uncluttered. Problems and opportunities are anticipated. Very little, if at all, appears to have been left to chance from the minute details to top decision-making.

Thus, there’s a Committee for the Future Economy, CFE, (which fell under the DPM’s responsibility till lately and who might have been invited to give a public lecture on the subject on this occasion) run by the best experienced technicians and policy-makers they have. Its job is to make recommendations well in time to re-orient the Singapore economy, matching dynamically outside developments. We were given such an advice by an eminent person interviewed by this newspaper some time back: Mauritius will have to keep running ahead of events if it wants to fulfil its economic pursuits.

In our case, it is for the proposed Singapore consultancy to recommend the measures which will improve the performance of our public services. Here are a few points which may have to be addressed nevertheless.

•       Without being deterred by negative biased media criticism, create an environment to support, not discourage, our public servants in their endeavours;

•       Procedures must be put in place for public-interest policy advice from the service concerning different public institutions to be filtered up in public to prevent short term private political interests from frustrating their implementation;

•       Have a clear line of command and responsibility, not a buck-passing multi-headed one, for actions taken/not taken in each department;

•       Identify quickly situations which have got out of hand and do all it takes rapidly to prevent them from deteriorating;

•       Empower those who are less capable by training them up to meet challenges of the modern technology-driven age;

•       Make public servants understand clearly the realities of the world outside as well as operations of private businesses so they don’t bureaucratically stand in the way of increasing our economic potential;

•       Raise the top resources from within the service by minimizing political appointees at the top and giving responsibility only to those within the service having independently proven higher abilities;

•       Reward selectively those who contribute the most, not favourites of top post holders in the service or minions of politicians in power;

•       Bring to the fore a new culture of direct accountability, commitment, ethical conduct and fast and efficient service delivery at all layers of decision-making in the service;

•       Make imaginative, visible social and economic outcomes from the service the benchmark for rewarding their authors in the service;

•       Rationalize the pay structure to attract the best talents to the service, including from outside Mauritius by matching it appropriately;

•       Free the system from accumulated impediments which have been holding it down and will keep doing so;

•       Make trade unions help raise the skills and contributions of their members to the service to adapt them to modern international competition.

Mauritius has accumulated a store of merits from the past. Its institutions can be made to work again for the good of the country rather than for the advancement of a few personal and political agendas. The type of predatory public governance we have seen of late is no substitute for good governance. It instils fear and under-performance among public servants. We need to quickly turn the page for a performing and result-oriented public service.

Anil Gujadhur

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