New blood governance: Issues that keep haunting us

Successive governments list reform of the Civil Service in their manifestos and subsequently in the Government Programme. But in practice not much of it is visible as time goes on, and when measures announced with firm promise of being fulfilled are applied partially or selectively, with customized justifications being given for the deviation, eyebrows begin to be raised.

One such measure was that all CEOs would be appointed by selection after call for candidature. No doubt some such posts have been advertised. But in the meantime CEOs have been appointed without the due process announced, and this does tend to alter the trust capital that the new dispensation came in with. Thus, there are already criticisms of the ‘gerontocracy’ that has been recruited across sectors. We do not buy the idea that all such retired senior citizens have run out of flame and have to be consigned to the dustbin. They undoubtedly represent a pool of rich experience that can be tapped, but we have been rather amused at the laudatory words about some who have ‘had a brilliant career…’ when they are known to have been pests in their former incarnations!

There are some issues of perennial and pertinent concern about Civil Service (CS) reform that deserve to be highlighted afresh, because they are critical to good governance and keep coming up and impacting the overall efficiency of the Civil Service. Political interference that demotivates and demoralizes officers, it will be agreed, is hardly likely to generate the kind of conducive atmosphere that would encourage them to give their best for the country. The following points, therefore, deserve to be kept constantly in mind:

· For the sake of consistency, equity and fairness, rules and regulations and procedures are absolutely necessary. But they must apply and be applied equally to all.

· Government and the CS and its bureaucracy can only be as good as the respective politicians and officers who are entrusted to run them.

· The CS is in dire need of the right people in the right places.

· The profiles of such right people must be based on those of their counterparts who built the system from the bottom up at its very beginnings, after the colonial masters had left. They shone by their: straightforwardness, rigour, brilliance and forthrightness in ‘speaking truth to power.’

They were thoroughbred technicians, specialists in their own fields, but also possessed of a breadth and depth of vision, and a lofty understanding of human nature which allowed them to handle both their peers and their subordinates with empathy and in respect of their dignity.

· The majority of them were holders of qualifications from prestigious universities, with well-honed competencies and skills. They were equally fluent in written and spoken English and French, and to them Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding did not sound as if it came from a different planet.

· They imprinted their respectability and prestige on the CS they were leading.

· The political leaders that they faced then were of a similar mettle to theirs. In order to give enlightened direction to their respective sectors, today’s political masters must rise to the level of perspicacity and sagacity of their stalwart predecessors.

· There are always some fossils left at the top who put spanners in the system. They are real Hobbesian leviathans – glorified clerks who are in fact merely de pietres administrateurs and worse managers. They always prefer to follow the path of least resistance, and acquiesce to the politician rather than putting the facts and implications across, for the sake of the longer-term national interest.

· They are responsible for the rigidities and dysfunctions of the sectors where they have planted their roots, creating a false impression of their indispensability which is gobbled up by their naïve immediate masters. Ever willing to secure their own interest, they will tell the minister what he wants to hear and not what he should hear – at his peril of course, when he is called to account by ICAC or the  , as has happened before.

· The way forward is: objectivity, transparency, accountability, teamwork, informed decision-making, pursuit of common objectives with a clashing of ideas if necessary, salutary and mutual respect for each other’s competencies that will create the necessary synergy to achieve a shared vision.

There must be a real will on the part of the deciders to bring about the desired changes for reform to be effective. Despite the rhetoric, it would appear that politicians do not genuinely want to establish systems and structures where the nature of transactions and decision-making will be rule-based. That does not suit them: they prefer to have loose ends, so that they can have room for manipulation. They cannot appreciate that even within systems and structures, it is possible to have flexibility to make allowance for specific contexts and circumstances, without going outside agreed norms and principles.

By the same token, in as much as it is important for the head of government aka Prime Minister, to have a clear understanding of internal processes within ministries and parastatals, it falls upon him to make sure that his ministers too are thoroughly familiar with these processes so that they do not behave like bulls in a china shop on assuming ministerial responsibility, which happens, and continue to do so for lack maturity or to be merely showy.

Previous events dictate that the head must, before it is too late, call to account those who stray from norms that he as leader would have spelt out at the outset, thereby strengthening his leadership and the country’s governance base. Coming as it does from the top, this would send very strong signals across the board and reassure the population at large.

But this is still not enough to make the country function smoothly. Ministers themselves must have fundamental notions of administrative workings, and must be familiar with organizational structure and functioning so that they can bring about change where necessary. Not change for change’s sake, but change so as to facilitate the processes that will lead to increased efficiency in the conduct of the operations of any given ministry. Meaningful change will not come about by those who confuse firmness with loud-mouthed vulgarities and displays of temper.

Every ministry has two basic arms: administrative and technical. The administration’s mandate is to provide the wherewithal to implement technical decisions, about which they can certainly seek clarifications for better understanding and appreciation, and share their specific concerns about the non-technical impacts of such decisions. These may even need to be re-visited in light of inputs that the administration may add afresh, but always there must be a going back to the technical drawing board as it were – because, in the process, systemic institution-building takes place, and that ensures not only transparency in decision-making, but also enhances the image of the ministry as a whole – with positive fallout for the country too.

If a minister has no concept of organigrams and that they need to be altered if necessary to produce results, then government is failing. And this is happening all the time. In key ministries which provide services, such as health, education, social security and agriculture this understanding on the part of the political head is critical. Unfortunately, there are examples of such gaps that persist, and it is important to ascertain that those in positions of ministerial responsibility are conversant with structures and systems, roles and responsibilities and the nuanced interplay between technical and administrative divisions. This is vital to ensure equity and social justice while pursuing government’s policies and meeting set objectives. If such incumbents become narrowly focused on quick political gains and ignore the people-process reengineering that is needed to carry their organization forward, they are not doing their job properly.

It must be said that across the board, ministers, administrators and technicians often take morally ambiguous stands without any qualm. They have no culture of considering the righteousness of decisions taken. An example would be when they resort to the favourite political/administrative weapon in Mauritius: punitive transfers. Mauritius must be unique in this matter. In a properly-run set-up, there must be established voire statutory procedures to deal with the issue of transfers, attendances at international workshops/conferences, annual assemblies and so forth, allocation of resources, etc. Otherwise arbitrariness and unfairness rule, and this can result in the demotivation of staff and impair morale and hence efficiency.

Another bane of Mauritian politics is the plethora of advisers who are appointed for purely base political reasons. Most of them do not fulfil any useful function, and burn the country’s coffers of moneys that could have been put to better use elsewhere. They charge in and claim scarce office space, and regular and long-standing cadres are relegated into being packed like sardines in cramped, under-ventilated offices. Successive governments have kept up the practice of hiring these parasites who eat into the people’s due, and it is anybody’s guess who will be the government leader who will put a much-needed stop to this aberration. There are some, though, who do deliver on their assigned roles by integrating into the establishments where their services are sought.

If we truly want Mauritius to make a bigger leap forward, we have no choice but to change to newer and more effective and efficient forms of performing, which includes soft restructuring as well as hard action properly directed by people with culture and vision, and in respect of agreed upon systems and structures. Therein only lies our hope.

 

* Published in print edition on 27 February  2015

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