At paragraph 265 of the last budget speech, the Minister of Finance has stated that “we need to ensure that positions provided for (in the Public Service) are speedily filled. … adopt modern procedures… In particular, the PSC will further delegate recruitment and promotion authority to Ministries and Departments for technical and managerial staff, except at the most senior grades.” This statement has given rise to diverse interpretations and to questions in Parliament on the exact implication of the delegation of authority referred to in the Budget speech. Some have interpreted it to mean that the government would be encroaching upon the rights of the PSC. The Prime Minister has himself insisted that according to section 82 of the Constitution, the PSC is permitted to delegate its authority and that the statement made by the Minister of Finance falls within the purview of legal provisions. The question has also been raised as to what exactly the PSC will do if all but the power to decide solely for the most senior grades were to remain with it.
The Public Service Commission has been in the business of recruiting public servants for nearly 49 years. It is however not a simple recruiter. It is an independent agency which is commissioned to ensure excellence, professionalism and integrity of the public service of Mauritius. It is expected to ensure that all its recruitment and promotion activity is carried out on a non-partisan basis.
While the power to delegate its authority is found in the Constitution, it is left to the PSC and to the PSC alone to decide on the extent of such delegation inasmuch as it will assist the PSC to carry out its job more effectively. In answer to questions during last Tuesday’s Prime Minister’s Question Time, the Prime Minister referred to the case brought up recently by Raj Ringadoo against former Minister Ashock Jugnauth in the matter of recruitment of Health Care Assistants under powers delegated by the PSC in which the courts had condemned the former Minister for having resorted to electoral bribery. This means that there are risks involved even at junior levels of recruitment outside the direct authority of the PSC.
If, despite this kind of risk, it is felt that the PSC should delegate in the name of expediency both its recruitment and promotion authority to Ministries and Departments except for the very top officers, this means that the possibility of the PSC being restructured to do its work more speedily to suit the requirements of modernity has been ruled out. We need to know what considerations have gone into the proposal made in the budget before arriving at this conclusion. This is all the more important as the PSC is seen as unimpeachable which, in a multi-cultural environment like the one in Mauritius, has a premium value to keep the public service untainted of any “insider dealing”. The PSC has been an important shield to protect the country against any allegation of mishandling and promotion of public servants. One also needs to convince the population that if ever the delegation takes place as sought in the budget, the standards of accountability, governance and of allegiance to objectivity of those acting in the name of the PSC will be no less than those of the PSC.
In a big country like India, which is making economic progress by leaps and bounds, the selection and promotion of public servants has customarily been and is still being done through a time-consuming process. Each year several hundreds of thousands apply for a few thousand jobs. They are subjected to several layers of objective and face-to-face tests before the few who make it to the top are finally chosen. The good thing about it all is that only the best make it to the top through an intense selection process by panels well versed in different fields of specialisation. There are no complaints about any electoral bribery or any unsettling thing of the sort. Governments come and go but the Union Public Service Commission of India (UPSC) remains above the fray. The point is that the emphasis is more on the rigour, experience and mature consideration with which the selection process takes place than on the fact the UPSC has remained the centralised body for dealing with applications each year from hundreds of thousands of individuals nearly the size of the Mauritian population as a whole.
To gain credibility, it has to be clearly established that the benefits of changing over to the proposed delegation of the PSC’s authority will far outweigh its costs. It also will have to be proved that the proposed new set-up will keep public confidence intact at all levels in the proposed recruitment process and not start addressing the damage after it has been done.
A Source of Disturbance
It is a source of comfort that, in the wake of debates aroused on whether there is wisdom in causing the PSC to delegate its authority, the PM has reaffirmed his respect for institutions. This is how it should be. Institutions should be allowed to fulfil their missions with the least interferences. They will yield the best results if they are headed by the ablest we have in terms of skills, experience and manpower.
This objective becomes difficult to achieve if, on the other hand, institutions are jolted out of balance because the heads do not, from time to time, quite fit the political profile that is judged necessary. Thus, we have seen with the various changes of government in the past that people who otherwise take the right business decisions are either ousted or replaced without any objective reason except political expediency.
We are told that each government should place “its own men” in strategic positions. The question which arises from such considerations is whether a person occupying a key post is thought to have become disposable by the mere fact that he or she does not belong to the right political stable. In other words, a person not doing the bidding, howsoever wrong, of a political party in power has to be ejected. It appears that it does not matter if the act of obeying blindly to political expediency amounts to a serious disservice to the institution in question. Rather what appears to be paramount is to do the political bidding even if it is irrational.
This approach to institutions must have done incalculable harm to the brighter course on which Mauritius could have embarked much earlier had such inopportune interferences not obstructed the institutions from fulfilling their missions. As proof of failure on this front, there have been several public institutions which have come into the limelight not for their brilliant achievements. Rather, they have become well known for bungling up the goodwill established by past performing executives who have been shown the door. The gap between what could have been achieved on a steady-state progression and the fudging-up of business by certain political appointees is not only difficult to bridge in an increasingly competitive world. It has the effect of putting the institution into an archaic mould in which everyone, properly groomed or not, starts believing that he can easily replace the Number One or Two in the hierarchy. The results are well known: we are still paying up the costs of the oil hedging saga; prices have increased for the public when they should not have, had it not been for such catastrophic management. The ground is littered with several appointees who were non-starters from the beginning.
We like to believe that we are ahead of many other less well off nations in matters of governance and so forth. We may well be. But we have missed the train that hurls forth without regard to those who keep reserving quotas in terms of appointments to public offices by cultural groups or self-serving lobbyists concerned more with their private interests than that of the entire nation. A day will come perchance when we might start looking in another direction, the right real one.
* Published in print edition on 3 December 2010