Effective Delivery Calls for Fundamental Reforms of the Public Service

Finance Bill 2018

Reform of the Civil Service is no longer a choice but a necessity. Faced with what can be aptly described as a “systemic” problem, the solution can only come from determined and strong political leadership

“The persistently low growth has exposed underlying structural weaknesses and risks further dampening potential growth and prospects for inclusiveness. We reinforce our commitment to strong, sustainable, inclusive, job rich and more balanced growth. We will use all policy tools — structural reforms, fiscal and monetary policies — both individually and collectively.”

The above quote surprisingly enough comes from a statement issued by the IMF Steering committee on the state of the world economy in October 2016. The more sceptical among us will find in it yet another illustration of the change in rhetoric adopted by the two Washington sisters (World Bank and IMF) following the Great Financial Crisis of 2008 but that has not necessarily resulted in any real change in actual approach and prescriptions.

Be that as it may, the point we wish to make here is that as we enter the crucial phase of the debates and eventual vote of the Finance Bill in Parliament the above quote could very well be an inspiring motto for government and civil servants alike. Voting of the Finance Bill signals the critical phase of the start of implementation phase of measures contained in the Budget. It is unfortunate that this is, and Pravind Jugnauth as well as his predecessors has consistently acknowledged it, where the weakest link in our governance structures seems to lie.

We can expect that, as each Ministry or department is tasked with getting on with the job of implementation, there will be the usual White papers, endless consultations, ministerial statements, press releases, Cabinet Committees (often followed by sub committees) and policy submissions and all this then leading to the usual state of decision paralysis. Crude as this may seem, the fact of the matter is that this is all too often the stark reality. Otherwise one would be at pains to explain why, since so many years and under successive governments, the Capital Budget remains largely unutilized during every financial year.

There is no point in trying to point fingers and play the blame game when it comes to understanding the deep causes and the reasons which have led to these messy and ineffective processes. It can simply be stated that over the years the environment in which the Civil Service operates, and which is largely determined by the maturity and professional ethics of our political “class” has been deteriorating constantly.

Ideally the Civil Service needs an ecosystem in which it can provide “deep expertise, institutional memory, continuity across changing governments and seasoned perspectives on policies and programs.” Arguably the conditions under which civil servants in Mauritius have been operating over the last decades are a far cry from providing the requisite conditions for them to perform to these high standards.

Reform of the Civil Service is therefore no longer a choice but a necessity. A government which is serious about tackling the “implementation conundrum” will effectively be faced with a complex challenge of carrying out such reforms while not causing damage to actual performance. Faced with what can be aptly described as a “systemic” problem, the solution can only come from determined and strong political leadership. There must be willingness to question historic practices and orthodoxies and to create a performance culture focussing on quality, costs and transparency.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing governments which are determined to reform their civil service are the issues related to attracting the “best and the brightest” talents. They usually struggle to find a structure which balances the quest for attracting talents with an appropriate remuneration structure. It can be argued that this is not necessarily the case in Mauritius. The compensation structure (basic salaries + other benefits) at least as far as the top layer of the Civil Service is concerned, is generally quite attractive.

The problem is clearly elsewhere, primarily in the recruitment policies (a perception of nepotism) and in the prevailing culture which is too often demotivating for professionals and technocrats. This again boils down to a question of leadership and political will to put in place what Deloitte’s of the UK (Govt & Public Sector Group) described as “moving from a culture of targets to one of engagement and reviving the public service ethos as particularly pressing issues.”

Some of the most damaging unintended consequences of the vendetta culture which has characterized recent political behaviour have been its effects on the public-sector decision process. Civil Servants are now obsessed with process for process’s sake rather than outcomes and delivery objectives. It is imperative that government should work with all stakeholders including primarily the public sector trade unions and the Ministry concerned in order to find both behavioural and structural solutions to this issue for any progress to be contemplated in the performance metrics of the Civil Service.

The Economic Development Board (EDB) was announced in the previous Budget as a central plank of the government’s efforts to resolve the “implementation failures” on the part of existing structures. It remains headless even after one year. It has lately started to show signs of dysfunctionalities usually associated with any organization that has no substantive leader.

The reputational harm caused to such a fledgling organization can be really damaging if this state of affairs is not remedied soon. The lack of strategic direction and clear definition of its purpose is bound to take a heavy toll on the performance of the organization. It has indeed recently been thrust with an array of tasks which blur its objectives and mission.

If the EDB is anything to go by, then one would have to admit that there is still a huge rift between rhetoric and action. The Acting Prime Minister, in answer to a Parliamentary Question, this week, replied that it is “normal” that after eight months a Chief Executive Officer has not yet been recruited for the organization, clearly demonstrating the lack of conception of the value of time by political decision makers.

 


* Published in print edition on 20 July 2018

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