Civil Service: Yes, yes Minister!

Yes, yes Minister! Of course Minister. Definitely Minister. Just leave it to me Minister.

Yes, yes: these are the most dangerous, if not treacherous words that a minister can hear from an SCE, Permanent Secretary or Technical Head. Especially if these words are accompanied by a faint smile and a prompt exit from His Highness’s office: the guy is going to fix the Minister.

Unfortunately, many ministers are so flattered to be ‘obeyed’ that they cannot make the difference between being fawningly pliant and being cautiously compliant. The latter response will be accompanied by qualifications such as, ‘Let me look into the matter Minister, I will revert to you shortly.’ A smart minister will not retort, ‘I am policy, you just do what I am telling you, understand!’ Instead, he will say something like, ‘Sure, but please make it quick.’

Even if one has been a minister before, moving to a new sector requires one to have a prompt grasp of some of its core specifics and technicalities, before by the by getting into the ‘god and the devil that are in the details’ that can then guide interaction and avoid traps and pitfalls. And build the trusting partnership with key officers that must be the basis of moving the sector forward based on sound policies.

Robust civil servants make for a robust Civil Service, one in which decisions and executions of government policy are made to abide strictly and rigorously to the rule of law, to rules and regulations that apply to all equally. Political heads are always under pressure to give in to demands from lobbies and special interest groups, which exert their pressure either on the line minister or even ‘higher up’ – that is, Prime Minister or Cabinet.

In the latter case, it is in the Minister’s interest – and eventually in the Prime Minister’s and the national interest – to advise the Prime Minister/inform the Cabinet based on the considered inputs he garners from his officers. And all this must be in written. It may be noted that, in the name of transparency and good governance, one of the first measures that the Modi government in India instituted was that all instructions from any Minister to any officer must be in written and not oral. This was following an incident that led to the unjustified transfer of a lady officer by the prior government.

Will we dare to be as bold and as frank here?

At least a good start has been made by designating, according to seniority, the SCE due for assuming duties as head of the Civil Service. This is following the existing rules and regulations and does not frustrate anyone: there is predictability and expectation, both of which have been met.

The incumbent, Sateeaved Seebaluck, has himself declared in an interview to a newspaper on Saturday, that the major challenge he will face in the Civil Service is to ‘définir les cadres institutionnels et légaux’ for its functioning. Civil Service reform is always a work in progress and this is a good point to underline and whence to start. Too many politicians try to bear down on civil servants to bend the rules. We have too many glaring examples of dysfunction that this leads to, and the only way to put a stop to such a rampant — if not institutionalized! – tendency on the part of politicians is to stick to the rules come what may.

There is also the issue of giving civil servants the modern tools that they need to make government’s delivery on its agenda more efficient and more prompt. We are a small country, and there is no reason why we cannot move very rapidly in all government departments towards effective E-governance. Again, this will make for greater transparency and efficiency of delivery.

A related matter is the working environment of civil servants: the cramped offices which are the bane of many ministries are also a blot on the image of a modern Mauritius. In this respect, the national authorities in Mauritius have not moved with the times, and it is high time indeed that all these offices were upgraded so as to provide a conducive environment for the officers who toil in them.

By the same token, in most ministries if not all officers do not even have a canteen or at least canteen space where they can sit for their meals or for a quick break. There is again no reason why such facilities cannot be provided, and for that matter government does not need to run such a space itself: through due process this can be outsourced to private contractors.

These are but a few of the issues that have been dragging for long enough and that need to be resolved with some urgency, but there are many more and in due course we will take them up too.

* Published in print edition on 16 January  2015

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