Welcome wind of change

The appointment of Mr Dev Manraj as Financial Secretary is no doubt being felt as a welcome wind of change not only at Ministry of Finance and Economic Development (MOFED) but also more widely across the public and private sectors, and even by various unions that have had to deal with him in the past. There is no need to detail the well-known track record of this exemplary officer who had occupied this post from 1990-1998. Suffice it to say that he is a man of wider understanding and empathy, having risen from the ranks locally, open to dialogue and having more of a conciliatory than a confrontational approach. We trust that this will still predominate in the years ahead.

Nobody ever had any doubt about Mr Ali Mansoor’s intelligence and competence. But as all management experts know, the overarching element in handling people is attitude, and Mr Mansoor had plenty of it. Those who had had the opportunity to face him across the table at MOFED could not miss the abrasiveness and cynism that invariably soured the atmosphere, boosted by the ever-present sardonic smile that he wore throughout – when he was present.

Many would remember the first meeting that he was supposed to chair on the absurdity glorified by the name of ‘Economic and Social Transformation Plan’ (ESPT). Mr Sateeaved Seebaluck, SCE of the Ministry of Civil Service Affairs, wanted it to be minuted that he disapproved of the flitting appearance of the FS at that session. Having been called to attend a meeting chaired by the FS he wished that the latter be actually present, to guide by his wisdom. What better demonstration of the esteem in which Mr Ali Mansoor was held? But no, the high-level officers who had taken their time to be there were not to have the benefit of that wisdom.

Enough has been said about the ESTP, and the only thing to repeat about it is that it was flawed from the beginning, a sham: defining the vision of the ESTP by asking each line ministry to send its vision, out of which the one would be made to emerge. By what magic to this day no one knows – but one does know that there are established methodologies to carry out such an exercise, and none was apparent on that morning.

Further, as a patriot who till he became FS had pursued his career outside his country – and has decided through his resignation to once again be an absentee patriot – the least that can be said is that he had not been in touch with Mauritian reality for a long, long time, isn’t it? However well-intentioned one is, being away for so long does create a disconnect. This would have been of no consequence had it not been for the fact that the post of FS is so crucial in terms of the impact that decisions taken on the basis of advice tendered by the incumbent has on the country and its population. The unions, and even many in the line ministries believed that of the people he may have been, but he was perhaps not as much for the people, perhaps by virtue of his professional bias acquired through his long years at the IMF.

His dada was efficiency, ever and ever more of it. But, as someone had remarked once, there is only so much juice one can extract out of a lemon! To achieve efficiency, you still need adequate rather than minimum resources. Mr Ali Mansoor was a minimalist vis-à-vis line ministries, and this contrasted with largesses and some excesses that seemed to be authorized elsewhere. The instrument he put in place was the PBB, and the civil service to this day is not clear about it, if only because it was never fully explained how to go about working through it.

Teams of foreign experts were made to keep coming at intervals, talking mostly through their hats as far as their audience was concerned. How much money went into this may never be known for certain, but definitely it could have been factored into budgets rather. Whether there will be a new version of the PBB is a question yet to be answered, but unless this is done the artificial, arbitrary targets and unachievable if not spurious goals that were identified will continue to be pushed from one PBB exercise to another without any real sense of where they will lead to.

Another matter that caused concern was what we had drawn attention to in an earlier article last month (‘Budget Blues’), namely shifting ‘the responsibility of some important policy decisions from the centre to the line ministries, which are instructed in the Budget Circular to “specifically explain how you plan to finance it (NB: referring to service, scheme or project) whether through taxes, user charges, funds reallocation, external grant, project loans, etc.” Isn’t it the job of a Finance Ministry to seek funds, devise ways to raise revenue, negotiate loans for projects and grants for schemes? Is it for a line ministry to propose user charges, especially as regards services which are being provided free of user cost in our welfare state model? That model for the country was a political decision, isn’t it? So how can a line ministry propose something that goes against this central policy decision?’

Granted, these charges are a form of cost-recovery mechanism. But what incentive is there for ministries to effect cost-recovery when all returns are ploughed back into the Consolidated Fund? Granted also that the latter represents taxpayers’ money which is then distributed to ministries – still, to make it more effective, and also incentivize officers towards desirable enhanced efficiency and productivity, there is a case to be made (and working existing models) for a basic percentage of the returns to be used as dedicated funds, especially in the social sectors, for e.g. buying equipment or organizing training. This is an idea that deserves to be seriously considered. Properly implemented, cost-recovery can also lead to client responsibility, and economize on resources.

But the country moves on, for at the end of the day, nobody is indispensable.

* Published in print edition on 11 October 2013

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