A Strong Case for
Nations which make tangible progress look to the future, rarely to the rear view mirror. America, UK, Japan, Germany, Korea,China, etc., belong to this category. They have so much to do to “fix” the future that they hardly have much time to recall the past to account. Other nations which do not form part of this league keep reminding themselves of something or other that did not go all right in the past. Much precious time is lost. This is why the speech of the Prime Minister at the Mauritius International Investment Forum being currently hosted at the Intercontinental Hotel by the Board of Investment comes like a breath of fresh air. It is entirely focussed on the future. It sets an ambitious objective to place Mauritius in the league of developed nations in a given timeframe. Translated into reality, this daring adventure will be a welcome departure from the set pattern. It emphasizes the need for stakeholders to cooperate towards the achievement of the government’s vision in order to advance things rather than working at counter purposes with each other.
One aspect of it has caught our attention. Talking about translating the government’s Maurice Ile Durable (MID) comprehensive vision into reality, the PM stated that this “would require the emergence of a new mindset in the public and private sector” with emphasis on “deliverables, performance management and results”. He went on to state that “government through the Office of Public Sector Governance at my office is already engaged in a vast performance audit exercise of parastatals and State Owned Enterprises. Lame duck institutions that are frustrating our efforts to meet the expectations of the nation will have to be phased out. … There are no sacred cows. Those who do not perform must expect to be sanctioned. I have already started and you ain’t seen nothing yet!”
It is well known that parastatal bodies have been created by various past governments from time to time to meet some desired objectives. They were established with a view to deliver certain services to the public which went outside the scope of the general public service. We saw thus institutions like the Agricultural Marketing Board, the Central Electricity Board, the Central water Authority, etc., and hundreds others in the parastatal and SOE sectors being established from time to time. Many of them, like the University of Mauritius, have key developmental roles and cannot therefore be forsaken. All that such institutions needed to do was to redefine their objectives to meet upcoming new challenges. Some of them did. Others couldn’t care less; they just carried on no matter how changed the market place had become in the meantime, ending up with worse balance sheets than those they started with. Examples of this kind of failure abound.
The greatest impairment to the efficient performance of parastatals came not so much from their excessive proliferation, but mostly from poor management. It was understood that, as governments succeeded each other, each government had its own actors-in-waiting ready to take over the command in the various parastatals and State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) and, by the same token, to oust the assumed incompetent incumbents at the top. From the 1980s, there was an even narrower based selection of political nominees under lobby pressure for not only the top, middle and even bottom, positions in parastatals and SOEs but equally as much in the Civil Service. The best could not access those positions. This method has created several layers of inefficiency down the years with the consequence that the public service has ceased to be the visionary one needed to make precisely for a cohesive, better and more sustainable future for the country. Public bodies became recruiting grounds instead for incompetents of all sorts. Assured of political support, many of the nominees behaved as if they could not be shaken from their positions no matter how much they faultered. Today, this has become part of a hard-core problem for the country.
It is in this context that the determination indicated by the PM to deal with the stock of accumulated inefficiency in the parastatal sector is a salutary factor. Unless we can get the public sector as a whole to work at the highest level of efficiency, by putting the right persons in the right place, public service cannot be expected to lead the rest of the country towards a very challenging future beckoning the country against the background of a series of international crises we have been witnessing. It requires a good deal of courage to undertake the radical overhaul of an entire system that has been impairing itself with all sorts of political patronage over so many years. This is a task besides that becomes less feasible as the government moves further ahead into its current mandate. One has to strike the iron while it is hot. Unless the overhaul takes place, we are condemned to stumble from one management failure into another. Serial attention to crises will stand in the way of achieving the “deliverables, performance management and results” to which the PM referred in his speech. You cannot move towards a developed nation status with a baggage of non-performers heading the public service.
One would have been content to see a change in the leadership of the public sector to avoid going down further. This is because it would have been far more profitable for the country to see this leadership being quoted for path-breaking and excellent achievements rather than being taken in for questioning by anti-corruption bodies investigating into how well they have conducted their charge. A foreseeable problem in this context is the possible leadership void that the cleaning up exercise may result in once the performance audit the PM referred to finds out the presence of many misfits at the top of parastatal bodies and SOEs and the public service. If that were to be the case, it would not be out of place for another unwritten rule in the matter of appointments at this level, notably that only those from the ruling political stable can be appointed, to be given up in the name of meritocracy. The more appropriate action is deferred in the name of political expediency the less we will be able to propel ourselves into the modernity which constitutes the PM’s dream for the country. The medicine may be bitter and the dose a strong one but the doctor knows that unless he administers it without remorse, he runs the risk of losing the patient altogether as well as the promised brighter future the latter could have aspired to.
* Published in print edition on 17 June 2011