Putting The Civil Service First

In our young days names like Dayendranath Burrenchobay, Deva Soopramanien, Bramduth Ghoorah, Daya Heeralall, Herve Duval, Chitmansingh Jesseeramsingh, or an Eddy Norton even if in a different register, among so many others, were familiar almost household names among large sections of the population.

These outstanding bureaucrats represented significant role models for a whole generation at a time when joining the Civil Service was the almost unique route to satisfy its legitimate aspiration to social mobility. As we grew older, a few names still stood out. Nowadays, however, this is not quite the case. Let us hurry to add that this is no attempt to lay the blame at the doors of present-day top civil servants who are probably no less dedicated to their mission than their illustrious predecessors.

The real reasons for this fading away of the top civil servants from the frontline has more to do with the increasingly blurred line of divide between the political personnel, including the flurry of ministerial advisors, and the professional bureaucrats in government departments. The origin of this situation can probably be traced back to the decision taken by a newly-elected government in 1982 to brutally dismiss a number of heads of departments. Subsequently, as the tasks of modern governance have become more complex the roles and responsibilities of these different layers of the administration have tended to be hopelessly mixed up.

As a result all of them (ministers, advisors and top bureaucrats) seem to be involved in all three functions of policy-making, namely, agenda setting, policy formulation and its implementation. The quintessential role of Permanent Secretaries as the leaders of the hierarchically organized staff under their responsibility in a ministry to provide “deep expertise, institutional memory, continuity across administrations, and seasoned perspectives on policies and programmes” to their respective ministers has been totally undermined for decades now.

Ministers have been known to carry “their Permanent Secretaries” along with them as they have shifted from one Ministry to another thus making a mockery of the very notion of “permanency” as described above. The undermining of this basic principle which formed the backbone of the permanent establishment has been one of the major causes of the weakening of the core structure of the Civil Service.

The recent global crisis has demonstrated, much to the chagrin of the ultra-liberal ideologues, that governments have a critical role in preserving the stability of the larger system which permits markets to function. Public administration therefore matters for the welfare of the nation. In Mauritius a more benign but not necessarily less pernicious view held in some increasingly influential quarters is that the Civil Service is a “necessary evil” which has to be tolerated but cannot ever be trusted. It is undeniable that, as a result of the attacks on its core structures, the Civil Service has indeed projected a rather poor image of itself for some time now. This is no reason to throw the baby out with the bath water.

The opposite view espoused in this column is that the Civil Service has a determining role to play in the socio-economic development of the country, as has indeed been the case ever since Independence. An effective public-private partnership and political stability have contributed strongly to the successful development of the country to date. As the unfavourable global economic environment will continue to negatively impact the growth trajectory of the country, it is imperative that the government starts taking remedial action on all factors which are under its direct control.

In this context it is axiomatic that governments must discharge their functions efficiently and effectively. It is in this connection that reform of the Civil Service needs to be high on the agenda. While the introduction of performance appraisal systems or stricter control of expenditure may be necessary components of these reforms, recent experience has demonstrated that such measures taken in isolation can be counterproductive. Real reforms would instead move away from a culture of targets and excessive control towards one of reviving the engagement and ethos of public engagement.

In concrete terms, reforming the Civil Service means that the existing bureaucratic structures should be beefed up in terms of talent, expertise and domain knowledge to engage with the most dynamic and progressive fraction of the local private sector as well as foreign investors in the most specialized industries and services. The proposition for attracting talent to the Service looks realizable, to the extent that the remuneration packages offered at the higher echelons of the service are attractive. The litmus test of successful reforms would therefore hinge on the overhauling of a “culture” and the staid structures which go with it so as to attract those young bright minds out there to seriously consider the Civil Service as a career option.

The size of the challenge cannot ever be overhyped. Although nothing short of a “cultural revolution” is what is required if we wish to achieve the above objective, this should not deter the leaders of the country from facing up to it. As we have said above, this is a necessary condition for improved economic performance and competitiveness in a hostile economic environment. Creating a culture conducive to the revival of the past glory of the Civil Service implies that conditions are generated so that people with the appropriate skill sets feel enthused and highly motivated to take up the challenges of a job that directly impacts on the welfare of each and every citizen.

The areas where immediate improvements are required are: policy execution, networking (with the private sector) and leadership. A paper by Deloitte relating to the review of certain aspects of the Civil Service in the United Kingdom made the following comments which we believe would be excellent food for thought for decision makers: “Frequently the challenges are more cultural, giving people autonomy and sign-off authority, reducing the complexity of forms, and taking people off copy lists. The quality of relevant data needs to be improved and delivery models clarified to relate that data into policy frameworks focussed on outcomes. Moving people from being busy to being productive… The Civil Service is not sure if it is about administering things or improving things.”

* Published in print edition on 24 Ocotober 2014

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