When the media uses the cudgel to cow down the public service

Director of Audit’s Report

The brief of the Director of Audit is to make observations and comments on the management of public funds in the country each year with a view to improving efficient financial management in the public sector.

As in previous years, therefore, the Director of Audit has placed his report on the table of the Assembly. As usual, he has pointed out shortcomings which have caught the attention of his department in the management of public funds, resulting in waste and inefficiency at the level of certain concerned departments. He has pointed out, for example, that in the case of one department which awarded two contracts on a bid basis for sewerage works in the Plaines Wilhems region the cost overrun, due to contract under-specification at the bid stage, amounted to nearly Rs 2 billion over the total awarded amount of about Rs 4.5 billion for the two contracts.

It is not only the scale of financial adjustment that catches attention for the sloppiness with which that department has engaged with work allocation. The report also mentions that, post award of contract, it is the contractor himself who went around evaluating the additional costs occasioned by under-specification in terms of topography and extent of coverage of the work. We are told that in this age of digital revolution, Google has drawn up detailed maps of the whole world thanks to high precision aerial photography. In whose favour will the contractor, you believe, work in such a case? How can a department assigning work not know with precision what it wants, right from the start, with the help of expert consultants if necessary to avoid having to ask the successful bidder himself to review the original specifications? This kind of sloppiness comes at a high cost to the taxpayer.

The aim should be to minimize such occurrences which smack of inefficiency and are not in accord with good governance. Ever since the Director of Audit has been making annual reports in Mauritius dating back to the colonial days, he has year-in-year-out been drawing attention to how public financial management could be improved the next time round. Specific cases are referred to. It is normal.

It is observed that part of the media uses this occasion each year, especially during the current government’s mandate, to chastise the public service of Mauritius for its supposed incompetence and for sloth. It is made out to believe that the whole of the Civil Service would be incapable of doing the work it is supposed to be doing, references being even made to PRB salary adjustments which the public servants would, in the enlightened opinion of certain journalists, not be deserving. While there must be some incompetents along the hierarchy of the public service, especially in the parastatal sector, in view of certain failings pointed out by the Director of Audit, it is totally unwarranted to put the latter temporarily on a high pedestal only to be able to spill venom on the entire public service.

One can accept it if the suggestion were to identify who, down the chain of the public service, is to be blamed for excessive or unjustified expenses incurred by a department or public body and to take action to rid the system of the specific agent causing the failing. If this is outside the brief of the Director of Audit, he could identify where exactly the decision-making flaw manifested itself so that the Establishment can take action as necessary against specific offenders. But painting the whole of the service black is totally unjustified and shows that those who condemn by means of wholesale generalisations of the sort, have an axe to grind against the very composition of the Civil Service.

We know that there are several capable and competent persons working in the public service. When governments gave them the freedom to produce the best they can, they have excelled. They have produced the very roadmap on which the private sector has been thriving for decades since independence. It is they who have been the architects to give Mauritius its excellent credentials for the ease of doing business, for example.

What happens if you keep hitting and hammering them down without rhyme or reason at every opportunity you get from the report of the Director of Audit? Even the high performers in the service will not want to take risks that are needed to be taken to advance the country’s economic scope. There will be stagnation. The country as a whole would become a nation of cowards, not prepared to stick the neck out to seize opportunities beckoning our way. Surely, this is not what we want collectively as a nation.

It appears some among the media have finally gathered an extraordinary amount of talent to cavil at everybody in the public service, irrespective of whether they are high quality performers who do the thinking and implementing not only for the public sector but even so for advancing the stage on which the private sector can thrive. Who has told you that decision makers in the private sector don’t fudge it up, which is what the current international economic crisis has been showing up for the past 5 years?

One can only hope that the next time around, commentators will be more circumspect and that they will also shower the praise where it is deserved, no matter what the composition of the public service might be. If this was done, civil servants could even feel empowered enough to stand up to ministers and other advisers who may be pushing them, at the cost of their jobs, to take decisions that are neither long term nor in the best interests of the country.

It is certain that, no matter what, well-motivated public servants can bring the big overhaul the country is in need of for long enough now. All they need is to be given the means and liberty to think out afresh, free from being held up as premium scapegoats whenever things misfire due to the faulting attitude of others.

* Published in print edition on 19 July  2013

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