Strong public institutions – an elusive dream?

It is only by putting the right people in the right place that a country can have the strong institutions. That this does not always happen is evident from the many examples that have brought dishonour to certain institutions

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

The outcry for strong public institutions has grown louder and louder during the past several years. All countries need them – because public institutions are the first recourse, and the last resort, of the common man.

The wealthy and those who wield influence and power can always attempt to tweak the system in their favour, often with apparent success – until they get exposed, numerous examples of which abound from all over the world, and not sparing our own little island either. Or they can bypass the system and go private where this is possible, especially in countries where such options are encouraged as a matter of state policy. Not infrequently, in these situations there is what I read some years ago, an observation by Columbia University prof Tim Wu, what he called the ‘terrifying political union between public and private power’ that can considerably disadvantage the population at large.

And in all countries with a properly functioning democratic set-up comprising legislature, executive and judiciary, by far it is the judiciary that must be the most robust of the institutions: it is the bulwark of the checks and balances mechanism that can ensure a measure of justice when public (state) or private power is used to suppress or oppress.

In principle, the state entrusts the government to set up public institutions and arrange for their autonomous and smooth functioning through regulatory frameworks tailored to the specificities of the respective institutions. However, institutions whether public or private are not abstractions: they are made up of people, and at the end of the day the robustness of any institution can only be a reflection of the strength and qualities – competence, character, behaviour – of the people who form part of it. Therefore, efficiency of performance goes hand in hand with the image of the institution, and it is these two aspects taken together that determine the credibility of an institution.

It can thus be seen that it is only by putting the right people in the right place that a country can have the strong institutions that its population deserves. That this does not always happen is evident from the many examples that have brought dishonour to certain institutions in our own country in recent times. Sadly, this has involved the country’s apex institution (the presidency), in what came to be known as the Sobrinho affair, besides that of prominent personalities during the sittings of the Lam Shang Leen Drug Enquiry Commission, and others since the beginning of this year with the ongoing investigations under way.

This contrasts with the concern of a late judge that I experienced many years ago. We were a threesome who used to trek in the woods on Sundays, and it so happened that on one such outing it was already mid-afternoon and extremely hot. We were exhausted and thought of taking a bus back to Curepipe. However, our judge friend said that given his status it would not be proper, in terms of his own and the image of the institution he represented, if ever he was spotted by a member of the public, given the shabby state that we were in, and proposed that we take a taxi which he would pay for. Finally, it was a friend who ferried us back, but this episode just shows the critical sense of responsibility of worthy people at all times and under all circumstances.

It is this kind of attitude that should prevail across all our institutions, in particular those which provide services that are used on a day-to-day basis by the bulk of the people, such as health, education, social services, law and order and so on. At all levels – from the point of first contact to the ‘processing’ through the institution – it is the appropriate conduct and competence of the its officers that will maintain not only its good name but also ensure that the users obtain satisfaction in terms of efficiency and quality of service. But it takes two hands to make a clap, and users must also comply with the rules and regulations in place which are vital for the smooth running of any institution. If these conditions are demonstrably met, then no citizen must feel that unless s/he has a ‘connection’ things will not happen.

Unfortunately, not infrequently it is politicians themselves who by peddling influence do a disservice to the institution. There are so many examples that can be cited, but one or two will illustrate the point. In times gone by, a rector of one of the most reputable colleges had preferred to resign instead of yielding to political pressure to promote an undeserving student to the next level. It is not given to all people in positions of responsibility to be able to take such a drastic step, in which case the officer is punished by means of a transfer. This happened to a teacher who admonished a misbehaving student whose parent happened to be a minister.

Similarly, public hospitals are somehow more prone to misuse and abuse, as when people with influence or ‘connections’ try to undergo investigations, such as MRI scans, or operations ahead of patients who are already on the waiting list. Hospital staff who abet these practices thus deprive more deserving patients of their due, and it is primarily their responsibility to see to it that this does not happen.

On the other hand, the public too have a role to play in the upkeep of what are after all ‘their’ institutions, and this is unfortunately not always the case. Within months of the new Jeetoo Hospital being opened, for example, the walls leading to several wards were soiled by visitors who while waiting to enter found nothing better than to rest their feet against the newly painted walls, which bore the brunt of the dirt carried by shoes.

Such unacceptable actions and practices on the part of the public or of members of any incumbent regime, or those who feel they can exploit their proximity to it, not only weaken the institution but the regime as well, with consequences that are felt at the next election.

These few examples show if need be that the soundness of public institutions is the joint responsibility of the government and the public – of the latter to give consideration to a public good which they themselves pay for (though taxes) although they may not realise it, and of the former to provide the wherewithal for the promotion of continuing professional and skills development. These, along with other sector specific measures, will contribute towards the strengthening of institutions, not forgetting either the important ethical dimension that must be part of any training.

Further, minor incidents that take place – as they do in the private spheres too – must not be blown out of proportion with the objective of discrediting the public institutions and induce people to ‘go private’ and burden themselves with debts in so doing. If again we take the example of the health services, perhaps the most vital sector when it comes to our survival, the National Health Accounts (NHA) carried out as part of a WHO exercise, have shown that private health expenditure exceeds public health expenditure. And yet, the public health sector deals with practically 75% of the health workload of the country – this means that the majority of the people in the country depend on the public health sector for their needs.

What would happen to the common man if, together – the government, the public comprising users, NGOs, civil society, the media, etc. – failed to contribute in a positive way to develop the public health services so as to deliver a continuously improving service?

This same logic applies to all our public institutions: it is our joint responsibility to ensure and oversee their soundness and strength, which is in the larger national interest, that is, at the end of the day, our own.

* Published in print edition on 8 October 2021

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