It is not by constantly blaming the inefficiencies the system has accumulated that we can make the breakthrough we badly need. We have to take the bull by the horns in keeping with changed conditions. An overhauled public service could become the trump card in our hands to move over to the higher stages
The Director of Audit comes out each year with a report listing down a number of shortcomings and under-performances observed in the public sector. There is a public hue and cry. Some are quick to generalize on the weaknesses of our civil service for those failures to abide by laid-down rules, having occasioned cost overruns, waste of resources and inefficiencies, etc. Since almost the same types of reproaches are made in the report the next year, despite measures adopted by governments to keep shortcomings under check, one might think that the system is incorrigible.
That is not exactly the case. It is the auditor’s job to highlight those places where things do not work out exactly as they should. He does precisely that. While the specific flaws he pointed out in the previous year might have been addressed, that would not prevent the recurrence of similar failings in other places in the departments and public bodies. He picks up the new ones for reporting in a bid to improve compliance and general performance of the departments.
This situation implies that an authoritative permanent centralisation of executive authority that could make everybody in the service conform to laid-down rules and procedures is not working its way up at all levels. Slippages take place here and there in the absence of the pervasiveness of such clear direction and authority across all levels. They may not be deliberate with intent to defeat rules and procedures for some unbeknownst reason. They may be due to lax application of principles or even lack of common sense or public servants obstructively “getting into each other’s way”.
It may be said that one of the great things the British bequeathed to their former colonies was a strong civil service. It was strictly hierarchical. The best and the brightest made it to the top. Even at the highest points on the ladder, they made themselves accountable for their every act and decision in the name of the service.
I was lucky enough to work at the former exchange control department which fell under the ultimate responsibility of the Financial Secretary. We held in awe even the names of certain top civil servants having left their traces on the files of the department: Hinchey, Craig, Simpson. Their minutes were brief, to-the-point, co-ordinated, decisive. They were written down after they had looked at the issues under consideration from all possible angles before sending the decisions for implementation. We were warned not to utter any nonsense or not well thought-out opinion in the presence of the likes of them at the risk of facing dire consequences.
This was the ultimate school on which civil servants based their career, not exactly the one portrayed by the intriguing but intellectually superior Sir Humphrey in the BBC’s “Yes Minister”. It is in the firmer tradition of delivering the goods that high-spirited top-class Mauritian civil servants emerged the likes of the Burrenchobay brothers, Vincent, Hervé Duval, Honoré, Maudave, Adolphe, Bram Ghoorah, Kaneti Banymandhub, Régis Yat Sin, Rundheersing Bheenick, Madhukar Baguant, Dawood Zamanay, Vishwanaden Sooben, Heeralall. The list is longer but they all shared some things in common: rigour when attending to the work at hand, vision and drive and the mind to get work implemented without leaving behind the least possible flaw. Another common thing they all shared: they left behind something grander than what they had been bequeathed by their predecessors in terms of concrete realisations and better bearing of the service on the public, its clients. The progress so registered became the cornerstones on which modern Mauritius has been constructed.
The element of staunch stewardship of the public service that this generation of public servants incarnated in Mauritius got somehow diluted down the years. Was it due to the sheer size the public service assumed as governments went on to embrace increasing public responsibilities? Was it the public servant’s fear of doing the right thing that could hurt one’s career prospects in the service? Was it the absence of incentive to the best performers because eventually everybody will be on par by the criterion of seniority and so, why take unnecessary risks? Which amounts to the same thing: the want of recognition for excelling in the performance of one’s duties or being held down in one’s performance for fear of being subjugated by or adversely reported on by some others who managed to be closer to political leaders of the day?
Whatever the reason for this state of affairs, a country has a big stake in today’s globalised economy. The performance of both its public and private sectors is critical to inroads it can make in future. We do not get the equivalent of the report of the Director of Audit on the private sector. But when the economy doesn’t do too well, it is public policies or their implementation that are sorely blamed by the private sector. Unfairly. While no one can discount the critical contribution a well-run civil service can bring to raising our economic potential, the private sector may also have to tell an identical tale of missed opportunities or remaining in the cosy bed of acquired trade preferences rather than facing what Joseph Schumpeter famously called “creative destruction” in the matter of letting-go of old enterprises to make way for more promising ones. It doesn’t happen, at least not always. Shareholders are content and don’t ask for the needed reorientation that the Chief Executive doesn’t even whisper out.
Many of the bright ideas on which our economy has turned round the corner came from both public servants and private sector entrepreneurs fleshing them up together until the projects assumed concrete shape. These came in the form of export-oriented enterprises, consolidation of our financial sector, creation of the ICT-BPO sector and so forth. We need to continue on this recipe to make further progress. We will need some outstanding public servants to come out from their ranks and become huge drivers like their counterparts in a better-performing private sector.
Where will such archetypes come from? Since the race is at the global level, a country would wish to maximize its chances to make it by equipping its top public sector decision-makers with talent and skills no less than what private firms struggling for global supremacy in their fields of activity would go for. This comes at a cost. Foremost private sector firms are prepared to pay such movers of dynamic change the price they command on the market. It is logical therefore that a government wanting to get the best out of its public service will do no less. Some governments in other places vie for the most experienced and talented graduates against the private sector when recruiting top-notch public servants. No consideration other than merits and capacity to deliver the goods. That could ultimately mean that entrenched bureaucracies would be called upon to abide by a different set of decision-making rules compared with what they work with, which give rise to the numerous criticisms levelled at them regularly by the Director of Audit.
It may well turn out that we could get one or two exceptionally high calibre drivers of the public service to save us from the usual approach of only “tinkering at the edges” each year without overhauling the fundamental superstructure. If so, they will become the innovative factor that is eluding us in the job of transforming both our private and public sectors to a more broad-based economic performance. Our public service cannot afford not to learn and apply the best practices in the private sector globally, unless we want to remain stuck for long between a rock and a hard place. This kind of management could tie up all ends comprehensively enough to make poorly thought-out projects contracted out for implementation before details have been fully addressed, to the past. Along with that, their associated cost overruns and time-wasting absence of overall co-ordination. Cost-saving by this means will pay many times the high prices civil servants of that calibre command on markets.
The world has changed from the glorious days of a handful of past generation of exceedingly well-performing public servants helping to put Mauritius on a higher economic orbit. It is not by constantly blaming the inefficiencies the system has accumulated that we can make the breakthrough we badly need. We have to take the bull by the horns in keeping with changed conditions. An overhauled public service could become the trump card in our hands to move over to the higher stages.
* Published in print edition on 22 August 2014