Reform in spirit and letter

In his summing up of the Budget Speech, Minister of Finance and Economic Development Hon Pravind Jugnauth stated as follows: ‘In fact, the Public Sector Reform Programme that we have announced will concern several public sector organisations and bodies and will be carried out after consultations with stakeholders.

‘These reforms are a sine qua non condition for providing better services to the population, businesses as well as to Government so that it can implement its policies more speedily, efficiently and effectively. And equally important is that all these reforms will allow us to make better use of taxpayers’ money.’

Down the years, the issue of reforms has come up in practically all budgets. The reform agenda concerns either specific sectors, such as education, agriculture, health, etc., or it aims at the Public Sector as a whole i.e. the Civil Service. Given that the Civil Service constitutes both the underlying and reference administrative structure for all other reforms, it goes without saying that it sets the principles, norms and standards which are expected to be adhered to across the board. In fact, the setting up of a Ministry of Good Governance was supposed to ensure that the business of government – which is executed through the medium of the Civil Service – was being done in conformity with the laid down rules of procedures and processes, according to the law of the land.

But going on into the second year of the mandate of the government, criticisms have been levelled even at the Ministry of Good Governance for the manner in which it proceeded to unravel what can be called the BAI saga as part of the major ‘cleaning-up’ operation that was launched. Along with this a few cases involving public sector organisations and bodies that have been aired in the public domain, reflecting inefficiency, institutional dysfunction and questionable use of taxpayers’ money, confirm the pertinence of the reiteration of and the need for reform as announced.

What are these cases? One is about the legal adviser of ICTA, Mr Trilochun (who also happens to be related to Minister Nando Bodha), who is deemed to have been paid exorbitant legal fees in one year for his ‘services’. The other is the appointment of Ms Yerriah to the Equal Opportunities Commission, when she did not have the stipulated five years of experience as a law practitioner according to the Equal Opportunity Act. In this case, further, the issue is raised about whether, since she occupied a post when she was not qualified for it, she should reimburse the pay which she received out of taxpayers’ money. Another one concerns Bruno Julie, a sportsman who was working at Padco. He is reported in l’express of August 17th as having declared that it is Minister Ivan Collendavelloo who phoned and offered him a job at the CEB. Doesn’t the CEB have a recruitment mechanism, and can a minister phone an individual and make him a job offer, bypassing the normal procedure?

These and other appointments since the government took over have raised questions in the mind of the public, as principles of equal opportunity, fairness, transparency and accountability and rules of procedure seem to have been ignored. But perhaps the most important example of malfunction is in the matter of the Heritage City. The bold decision taken by the Minister of Finance to scrap the project has been welcomed by all right-thinking people, and the overriding concern here is the decision-making process at the central level, which boils down critically to policy: there is a total lack of a proper entity at central government level for in-depth analysis of policy proposals and options, and then advising and making recommendations. If such a body had existed, the country would not have had to go through the pains of what we can call the ‘Heritage City process’, not forgetting the Rs 123 million that this will engulf needlessly in taxpayers’ money.

This paper has highlighted a number of times how the dismantling of the Ministry of Economic Development has ill-served the country in matters of policy-making. It has flagged the setting up of an Institute of Policy Analysis and Planning that would assist government in devising sound policies and going ahead with feasible and realistic plans. There are existing models of such an entity that could be adapted for the local context. The country would be spared not only millions and billions of wasted consultancy fees, but also inordinate delays in pursuing much needed projects.

That is at the large picture level. At level of execution, it is the trusting partnership between political heads and key officers that must form the basis of moving forward any sector, and thus the country, on sound policies. For 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, and robust civil servants can guide them so as not to fall into traps that they are not aware of if they were to succumb to inappropriate pressures.

At all times, the major challenge the Civil Service faces is defining the institutional and legal frameworks for its proper functioning. Civil Service reform is always a work in progress and this is a good point to underline and whence to start. And then to ensure that there is rigorous adherence to these frameworks – which will spare everyone, politicians and officers concerned, from accusations of impropriety down the line. Having himself been involved in the MedPoint case which has had a heavy toll at both personal and country levels, we would think that the Minister of Finance is well placed to drive the reform agenda. If this takes place genuinely according to the stated intention in the Budget, the greatest winner will be the country and its population. Surely a legacy that any minister would be very proud to leave for posterity.

TP Saran

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