Delegating Authority: Is The State Undermining Itself?

By TP Saran

All the mega-projects announced by the Prime Minister (PM) in his end of year address to the nation will perforce have to be ‘processed’ through the hated bureaucracy, and the even more vilified bureaucrats.

In this column I have often levelled criticisms, frequently quite harsh ones, at bureaucracy and bureaucrats both in general and in specific terms. And I will continue to do so, for the simple reason that in a way they hold the jugular of the country, and must be not be shy of their workings being examined: they are the channels through which government’s programmes materialize, whether these programmes are government’s own, or are pushed by private sector interests via the government. It is important that the common man appreciates what exactly happens in the labyrinthine corridors, and the cubicles where vital decisions on his behalf are made or made operational, and to try to constantly improve matters.

In the past few decades, all political leaders of the country, at some stage or the other, have had a go at the Civil Service (CS), using some very derogatory adjectives at times. Les fonctionnaires ont bon dos! But I never heard the first Prime Minister of the country do so. He was human, and not perfect. He made up for it by his wisdom, a quality sorely lacking in those who have come after him. If he wanted change in the CS, based on his vision for the country and his intimate knowledge of the mode of functioning of the CS, he brought it about subtly and effectively. Those who are at the helm of the country today should go and seek the valuable lessons that SSR left behind.

The point I am trying to make is that it is not enough to only pay lip service to reform of the CS: any Prime Minister has it at stake to see to it that it actually takes place. It goes without saying, therefore, that he must have an in-depth understanding of how the CS functions – or doesn’t function, which seems to be the perception of those who most abuse of its processes: politicians of all hue. They are the ones who distort and misuse every instance of the CS to their narrow advantage — and by way of acknowledgement of their supposed victory over CSs, they fire at the latter whenever they get a chance.

Revamping the credibility of the CS

The first step towards revamping the credibility of the CS is to realize that it is the executive arm of government. Second, enough of public denigration of it by political leaders and immature journalists looking for sensation. Third, the PM must lead the way in consolidating the structures and systems of the CS (as SSR did)and appreciate that this is a continuous process. And fourth, while doing so, there must be no move to initiate or encourage anything that will undermine this ongoing construction. But lastly, and most importantly – if not unfortunately: but alas, that is the nature of the democratic polity — it falls on the shoulders of the PM, and his alone, to bear the unique and most heavy responsibility of overseeing this consolidation at all times.

A robust CS simultaneously reflects the strength of the State’s institutions and the image of the government. In our humble opinion, the blanket delegation of authority by the PSC to ministries is an example of undermining of the State because of the real danger and potential for political interference that has been strongly articulated by many stakeholders. Since the PSC is the apex recruiting body of Civil servants (CSs), this is where the process of strengthening must start, and a wrong signal is being sent.

However, input at the PSC level only is not enough. The strengthening must occur at all levels throughout the CS, and it involves the governance structures (the hardware), systems (the software), and the people. The structures must have their specific roles, advisory or executive, and transparent operating procedures that are respected; the system must facilitate the fulfilling of the roles by the structures, and the people must be competent and trustworthy: the latter quality is more important than loyalty.

Because loyalty means blind obedience that is flattering but is apt to misguide. Whereas trustworthiness implies open-mindedness and presents options for the guidance of decision-makers. Instead of surrounding themselves with ‘yes minister’ types (LEX made an allusion to the genre in the last issue of this paper), they should be happier to have ‘let us give careful consideration’ types. This is not the case at present.

What would a leader prefer if he takes a path that is likely to be inimical to some objective(s) he wants to attain, and which is evident to an officer: be allowed to carry on and face failure and/or opprobrium, or his attention be drawn to any reservations(s), and alternative suggestions made? The answer is obvious – and the implication is that the leader must have discernment so that he can identify the trustworthy from the apparently loyal but unreliable.

Demotivated Civil servants

Demotivated CSs will be neither trustworthy nor loyal, and it is a fact that there is great frustration at present in the CS, and this has been on for several years now. An end must be put to it. The frustration comes from the non-filling of substantive posts, and deserving officers are forced to work under people who have been assigned duties from a lower level, in several cases without any transparency or rationale in the selection of the assignee.

But worse is the fact that there are any number of retirees, well past their dates and with no track records to speak of, who have been catapulted into position on the flimsiest grounds – which means there is absolutely no justification for them to occupy positions that should legitimately go to others by way of promotion, and to which they may rightly be aspiring. There may an occasional rare bird, needed for a temporary period – but this must be an exception.

Given this unhealthy situation which saps morale and impacts on efficiency, there are certain steps that must be taken urgently, and a few of them would be:

  • Start serious thinking about the profile required of people in strategic positions, and organize the training of all interested and potential candidates: Civil Service College?
  • Revisit approval of working during pre-retirement leave;
  • Do not renew the current contracts of present retirees when they are over, except in defined scarcity areas, and that too for the shortest periods possible if at all required;
  • Strengthen the PSC by professionalizing it; that is, have ‘chapters’ – similar to those of professional bodies – equivalent to say, the Judicial Service Commission or the Disciplined Forces Service Commission, for large sectors with technical specificities e.g. agriculture, engineering, health/medicine, so that those awaiting appointment or promotion are given their due without unnecessary delay;
  • Since we aim at becoming Singapore, have a team from there to do a BPR exercise of our CS, because the PRB has not been able to propose the appropriate organizational structures, both generic and specific, that a modern CS needs so as to perform efficiently.

One consequence of this organizational weakness is that it allows ministerial intrusion into operational aspects of the service notoriously, amongst others, where transfers are concerned. Another is that external inputs are given priority over in-house advice by officers grounded in the realities of their sectors, not to speak of routine bypassing that gives the upper hand to those whose specialty is to fawn. Administration is confused with management, and strategy and policy formulation are inexistent, being replaced by a profusion of requests for feasibility studies/sector strategies-reports by outsiders which are forced through by MOFED for reasons best known to itself, involving considerable sums of money and leading to utter waste. Performance and efficiency become victims of agendas emanating from elsewhere, leading to further frustration.

Either there are rules and regulations that apply to all and to all levels, from the ministers down to the lowest level employee, or there is anarchy, with glib bulldozing of all that stands for order. This not only soils the image of government and the country, and throws doubt on the integrity of the State, but it also exposes the government to suspicions or allegations of favouritism, nepotism, cronyism or giving in to occult influences from inside or outside.

We would not like to be in his place – but history places each of us at critical intersections by a combination of destiny and individual will, and we must perforce assume our responsibilities when we find ourselves at the given point in the trajectory of the nation where we happen to be. As the PM likes to remind us, it is no mean feat to be crowned a third time – and the mantle has become heavier. All the more reason that the stamp of true reform be imprinted on the CS, starting with rigorous adherence to existing rules and regulations, so that those who are called upon to run it can feel that they are truly serving the country and transforming it into a nation – whatever be the government of the day.

If we want bright young Mauritians to return and serve their Motherland, this is the only way forward. May the statesmen come forth.

* Published in print edition on 14 January 2011

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