A Civil Service Worth Its Name
Whether we like it or not, in countries which are at the stage of development Mauritius is in, the Civil Service will remain the principal engine of growth. It is best placed to be the source of all new ideas on development given its overreach of the entire system. It can also be the originator of all big initiatives which culminate in economic and social uplift given its proximity to the sphere of policy-making. It can afford to be neutral when taking decisions, irrespective of partisan considerations, because this is what the rules say. It can light the way to all other sectors to reward strictly on the basis of meritocracy as this approach will raise its productivity as well as that of others.
It can bypass the existing political system of rewards and punishments when it comes to putting the best people in the right place in the service. We don’t have all of this in the right proportion because of perennial political interferences. Our Civil Service therefore finds its efficiency impaired. Even then, it has been delivering far better than various private and parastatal organisations.
The debate which has just arisen about the so-called freeze on appointments and promotions, with trade unions accusing the Financial Secretary (FS) of acting arbitrarily in this manner, is a false debate. The FS and other establishment heads are bound to act within the remit of budgets approved by Parliament during budgetary exercises. If anybody has evidence that someone in the public service is acting deliberately to thwart the appointments/promotions of staff as approved, blaming it on the restrictive use of allocated budgets, he has to demonstrate it. You cannot increase the number of eye surgeries to be carried out, for example, by spending larger amounts on buying up equipment that will be sparsely utilised in the end because you do not have adequate numbers of specialists to undertake those surgeries. In the first place, the Ministries that have caused those budgets to be voted ought to have identified their capacity utilisation much before proposing them to Parliament. It is also a bad thing to accelerate spending in a shorter period, for the record, because you do not get value-for-money under such circumstances. Everything has to be properly calibrated beforehand for the best outcomes to ensue. Taxpayer money is not meant to be thrown out at random by rushing into spending or trying to show so-called efficiency because spending would have accelerated.
Actually, the debate is not about the numbers to be recruited, promoted, etc. It is about manning the service with a hierarchy capable of bringing tangible improvements in the execution of approved projects and, hence, on the quality of service actually given to the public. It is not a sheer game of numbers; it is about organisation. It is about the efficient use of technology. It is about not appointing certain persons to positions of responsibility on sheer political and similar criteria. You can deliver better results by organising fewer staff rationally and making optimal use of human resources and capital equipment. Actually, there is no point employing larger numbers if that is another name for disguised unemployment or under-employment of resources.
It is critical to bring back the culture of efficiency that the no-nonsense British colonial bureaucracy was renowned for at one time in our history. This system worked with a thin staff but delivered astounding results given the little resources made available to it. Its work has an imprint of the permanent and is not of the newer patchy things that we see done and undone from time to time, entailing even more unnecessary expenses. Somewhere down the road, we became used to mediocrity in the service because the heads of different departments ceased to command the respect owed to recognizably efficient cadres of an important service such as the Civil Service.
Intelligent management took the backdoor in several cases and political protégés began ruling the roost. Is it surprising, in the circumstances, that we have been limping up our way to development for decades when competing countries have been rushing ahead, putting the bar of proficiency at ever higher levels? We have foolishly lost the experience gathered by Mauritians working under the same conditions of result-oriented discipline which the British administration was based upon. We have substituted it with second- and even third-best solutions. We have been making too many compositions with diverse forces at work for protecting private interests and not looking far enough to the distant horizons as it used to be the case before. All this needs to be undone if the Civil Service is to gain back its credentials as the efficient service that it used to be.
It has to be recognised that the different forces at work in the service can achieve only that much on an individual basis. The PSC and DFSC can only recruit the best in the circumstances. They cannot transmit an ongoing work culture in the workplace. They will not be able to stop the backbiting which results not only in frustration of the best serving officers but also the lowering of the general level of the output of the service drastically. They cannot harmonize the various departments to bring out the best results overall. Audit can find faults after they have been committed. It cannot force those who waste public resources not to do so again especially if its criticisms fall upon deaf ears. Those who are entrusted with technical aspects of the job cannot usurp the responsibilities of the coordinating administrators whose job it is to see to it that things do not clutter up and that the best results obtain from the use of resources across the board.
What the Service needed to get better was one or two top arch performers who have grand vision and an inherent capacity less for doing repair work but more for implementing a foresighted vision of the service with a broad outlook into, say, the next ten years at least. Our deficiency on this level has become proverbial unfortunately. It is not surprising that some people are taking every occasion to hit at the service in general because certain of its cadres are unable to deliver. On the contrary, we should have encouraged the service to go for excellence. This would be good for the future of the country because, whether you admit it or not, the Civil Service has been the spur of all economic and social development in the country not in a too distant past.
We need to light up that torch again to go for even greater achievements. Finding out those great drivers will be difficult because political intrusion has dried up the potential pool of expertise we could have drawn upon to get back but it will not be fruitless altogether provided politicians are prepared to eat humble pie.