Government and the Public: The Growth of Righteous Impatience

These days a quick look around the world where new governments have been brought to power, shows that there is growing impatience not only of the electorate, investors and businessmen but also ministers and politicians.

Governments are nervous about delivering on their pledges within a prescribed time frame; businessmen and investors are eagerly awaiting the returns on their investments while the electorate is impatient about the fall in unemployment and the wanting improvement in the standard of living.

While this phenomenon has always existed in the past, in recent years it has become clamorous for a number of reasons. Not surprisingly, this impatience has been on the rise because government action and maneuverability is limited and has little impact on the course of events, especially in the short term.

In India there is impatience in some parts of the polity with the Modi government as it is proving difficult to replicate the Gujarat model of economic development at the all-India level. It appears various commentators hold it that Modi had underestimated the difficulties of overcoming the hurdles of development in proper time as well as the growing impatience of the electorate all of which might got reflected in the BJP’s defeats in state elections in Delhi and more recently in Bihar.

Similar examples of governments failing to convince voters about their short term ability to deliver can be found in other countries such as Sri Lanka and from Australia to Venezuela.

A few weeks ago, we drew attention to the early difficulties of making the University of Mauritius a reality. Between 1965 when the University Ordinance was passed and the University Act of 1971 when the university buildings began to transform the landscape of Reduit, there were six long years during which the Founding Fathers toiled hard to give the upcoming generation an opportunity to embark on higher education. Even the land at Reduit was not available and there was the threat of compulsory acquisition before the land was finally released for construction.

There are numerous examples in our history where projects could not be implemented because of obstacles one way or another making progress impossible; those who sought to redeem their pledge within the electoral cycle were disappointed and eventually paid the inevitable high price for failure to strike a judicious balance between short-term and long-term priorities.

Take for example the demand of small planters for an equitable share in price of the cane, which was related to their contribution in the production of sugar.

The issue was raised in 1911 by the small planters before the Moody Commission, discussed at the Sugar Conference of 1927 and was one of the most important factors which ignited the labour unrest of 1937. The issue was tackled by the Hooper Commission in 1937, and later by the Balogh Commission in1963. It took so many long years for small planters to gain justice.

Today such a time frame would no longer be acceptable for present-day planters who are asking for a fair price for bagasse. It would be interesting to see if they are more patient than their predecessors, but one thing is certain: their demand is going to become more strident in the new social and political situation.

In the present democratic set-up, the demands of the electorate cannot be resisted for long, given the fact the electorate has become so empowered by social media that the potential power to put pressure on the political class has become real and almost unlimited.

If, on the one hand, the electorate has considerably enhanced its power to reprimand the political class, on the other hand government has been considerably weakened in its efforts to redeem its pledges made to the electorate during an election campaign.

It was Prime Minister Blair who once told his ministers ‘How is it that we lay down policy and then nothing happens?’ This had been the experience of many Prime Ministers in Britain before him. Blair wanted to bring about some changes. He became increasingly involved in policy initiation and delivery, strengthened the Cabinet Committee, enlisted political advisers and other experts and set up a Strategic and Delivery mechanism. It was realized that because of the growth of crosscutting issues, ‘many of the great issues that face modern governments are ones that span organizational boundaries… and therefore there needs to be a stronger co-ordination.’

A Strategy and Delivery unit allowed the Prime Minister to identify the major priorities and ensured that government delivered them. The Delivery Unit was eventually located in the Treasury because it has more levers than either the Cabinet Committee or the individual departments. It is believed that the Strategy and the Delivery units had proved useful in delivering government policy agenda and in coordinating work across governments.

In Mauritius, there have been some timid changes over the years with the use of advisers, consultants and technical expertise from various quarters working with civil servants to ensure the implementation of projects. While the impact of these changes needs to be evaluated, it would be unfair to say that that there have not been many successful projects; however, these committees remained largely unstructured and implementation was left to the respective ministries with both good and bad results.

In the field of education, one major project has been a failure. It is well established that government’s efforts to tackle low performance at primary and after primary schools has been a patent failure — from community schools in the 1970s to present-day ZEP schools. And there is little hope that that we are on the way to a solution unless the real ills have been properly diagnosed – and very often these ills are found outside the school walls and are grounded in the poverty of the community. Failure to also recognize this stark truth will perpetuate the ‘pyramid of errors’. Who can vouch that screening or remedial education will successfully work in Standards I and II?

One major reason why governments fail to deliver is the habit of telling the electorate that they will deliver before the next election, when they know full well and the electorate knows it well too that major projects which require a paradigm shift will inevitably be completed after not only one but two or more elections. The fact that many governments inaugurate projects that they never started prove clearly that no government can deliver on time on all projects – and to raise expectations that they can do so will simply provoke righteous indignation and impatience on the part of the electorate which will call their bluff at election times.

Even if we have an efficient strategic, implementation and monitoring unit, it will require much more time to transform the country. One good example to illustrate this point is to look at the vision of an ocean state.

It was only in March 2012 that an agreement was reached with Seychelles for joint administration of 396 000 square kilometers of maritime zones. The road map of the Ocean Economy was published in 2013 by the PMO. Since 2009 the Mauritius Research Council has been identifying the main directions of our future economic development in the Science and Technology Report prepared by the Ministry of Industry in collaboration with other ministries and stakeholders; d this report has been updated in 2014. Meanwhile different stakeholders, namely the STC, the Mauritius Port Authority and different ministries have implemented their part in the bunkering project. The full implementation of the Ocean Economy agenda will still be ongoing in 2020 and 2050.

If the long-term objectives will only be implementable in the distant future, the young people will not be waiting for 2030 to get a decent job nor will the public wait for the long term for an improvement in their standard of living. Investors, planters and SMEs expect better economic conditions and government will have to come up with priorities for the short term while also putting in place the right longer-term macro-economic policies. Failure to do so will heighten the impatience in all quarters and this can prove fatal for governments.

In many countries the phenomenon of growing impatience with governments has become a new trend in the political and electoral behavior of the public. In a globalized world where governments are losing control to the social media, it will be surprising that Mauritius follows a different path.

 

 

* Published in print edition on 31 December 2015

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