The Minister of Civil Service Affairs, I am told, made history some time back by convening all heads of ministries to a meeting to, as he puts it, “get to know you better principally because as heads of ministries and departments, you are the privileged partners of my ministry”.
He reminded his audience that it was the vision of government to transform the civil service into a smarter civil Service, and enumerated five main themes to improve management, performance and service.
Today’s civil service is a poor shadow of the civil service of post independent Mauritius when the best brains of Mauritius were recruited to steer newly-independent Mauritius to a better future. In fairness however we should acknowledge the fact that Mauritius could not find itself at the top of the “Mo Ibrahim” Index without a significant contribution from the Mauritian Civil Service. However the perception in Mauritius remains that the Civil Service is an onerous bureaucratic machinery, inefficient at all levels and served by an army of civil servants who are subservient to the political class. So when the Minister invites the Civil Service to respond to a new set of challenges and be prepared to face emerging ones, he should first of all inculcate new values to a civil service which lost its soul in 1983.
This occurred when the famous 1982 government amended the Mauritian Constitution under the guise of reinforcing our democracy by surreptitiously introducing an amendment to section 113 of the Constitution. Subsection (4) reads: “ Where… an appointment is made to an office by the Prime Minister… or after consultation with him or with his approval… the holder of the Office may notwithstanding any provision to the contrary in this Constitution be required to vacate at any time after the general election the office held after the appointment”.
The amendment brought to the Constitution was arbitrary and contrary to the principles of the rule of law. It affected Principal Assistant Secretaries, permanent secretaries and, latterly, senior Chief Executives, all of whom have through hard work made their way up the hierarchy. Following the insertion of section 113(4) in the Constitution the very soul of the civil service was taken away.
By a mere stroke of the pen, the new lord of the manor could erase years of hard work and this without having to give any reason. The higher echelons of the civil service lost their security of tenure and the author of the Bill in the National Assembly justified government’s position by stating that it was natural for any government to be able to weed out those it considered unfit to carry out its policies. Once the higher echelons lost their security of tenure, and as a result their independence, their only path to survival since 1983 has been to cling to a culture of “yes Minister”.
Soon after the proclamation of the amendment, a string of senior officials were sacked depriving the civil Service of many of its bright minds. Amongst the casualties Hervé Duval, Kanti Banymandhub, D. Purmessur all vilified and sacked for having apparently shown too much loyalty to the old regime. The Solicitor-General Edwin Venchard was also amongst the casualties and he left behind a void which is still being felt.
The Minister should first understand a smarter civil service implies a civil service that provides security of tenure at all levels of the hierarchy and also remains forcefully independent in its rapport with the political class. That does not mean that it should not discharge faithfully its mandate to serve the government of the day but simply to be able to work within known parameters and protect its integrity and honesty whilst carrying out the policies of government. At the same time the civil service should ensure that its decision is taken in a transparent and fair manner.
* Published in print edition on 8 April 2011