The Risks of Being a Civil Servant

By TP Saran

While respecting the decision of the Director of Public Prosecutions, namely that there was not sufficient evidence for ICAC to pursue further the case against ex-minister Mrs Maya Hanoomanjee, but that disciplinary proceedings were warranted against certain officers, we cannot help recalling some observations made in this column as the Medpoint saga was rolling out both in the National Assembly and the media. They concerned the way that instructions are conveyed and decisions made in the Civil Service, as well as the potential vulnerability of certain civil servants in the course of ‘processing’ and executing them.

Thus, one of the issues highlighted was that ‘given that civil servants of all grades and at all levels are the ones who are responsible for following the procedures or seeing to it that this is strictly done, the onus of responsibility falls primarily on them. And they are the ones who are the first to be finger-pointed, charged or arrested whenever a breach of procedures is established, especially if there is a suspicion of corruption as defined in the Prevention of Corruption Act. That this definition is nuanced and that civil servants might be subjected to undue pressures, especially of a political nature – overt, covert or occult — seems never to be taken into consideration.’

We are, of course, not challenging the DPP’s right to decide whether he has or not sufficient evidence to proceed against an accused or not. What we are saying is that there is a risk that the absence of cross-examination of all concerned may lead to all information not being put together to give a fair chance to all parties, including the concerned Civil Servants.

Again, for want of a cross-examination, it is not possible to identify an officer who may fall into a category that the following observation was pointing out in the same article: ‘And this is where the overzealous ones (i.e. civil servants), who want to ingratiate themselves for selfish motives vis-à-vis the minister – such as wanting a promotion, or a trip for which they don’t match the required profile – excel.’

But which is the institution or the mechanism that can track ‘all the way up to the source where exactly the instructions originated, and which is able to identify who are the officers, if any, who willingly danced to the tune and who are those who, honest to goodness, had no option but to carry out instructions by virtue of the functions of their post or because of their subordinate position which would give them no option but to comply with the instructions received’?

The consequence is that all officers incriminated are usually lumped together, and subordinates are the ones who are possibly likely to be unfairly done with under the existing system. Such a situation would obviously be most unfortunate. Since a lot of it goes by way of verbal instructions, it would be only fair and in accordance with the principles of natural justice that views from all sides are corroborated under cross-examination, with all the actors said to have been involved present for questioning. That would have shown who acted willfully for private gain and who among the officers had no option but to abide by instructions received.

We had also written: ‘However, the fundamental principle remains that whoever takes a decision must assume the full responsibility for its consequences. And this is where the rub lies. All public officers working in the “administration” at levels where they have to interact with or implement decisions… will be familiar with examples of decisions which are arbitrary and without any rationale, and yet are sought to be imposed without any consideration of the larger picture, not least the issue of equity and social justice.’

This column had also underlined then that ‘Tolsiraj Benydin, experienced Union leader, has commented that civil servants are entitled to say “no” to a minister. With their maturity and long-standing track record, he and Radhakrishna Sadien, another Union leader, must go even further: they must hold regular meetings throughout the year with staff in all ministries, and give them clear guidance as to how they can do that – say “no” – without incurring foul-mouthing or being blackmailed, with threat to their job. They would do a yeoman service to their followers, who feel abandoned at times like these.’

We do not know whether there have been such sessions for civil servants. If not, they have become even more urgent.

* Published in print edition on 19 April 2013

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