The present system can be strengthened

Civil Service

If only the right signal is firmly sent from the top

By TP Saran

In an article about Civil Service reform that was published earlier, we made some observations. As this matter is of perennial and pertinent concern, we would like to highlight afresh, with amendments, some of the points made.

–          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 Civil Service (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 at 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. 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 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. Most of today’s political masters lack the perspicacity and sagacity of their stalwart predecessors. As a result, they are incapable of giving enlightened direction to their sectors.

 –          Rot has invaded our CS, especially at the top where certain fossils are sabotaging the whole system.

 –          They are real Hobbesian leviathans — glorified clerks who are in fact merely de piètres administrateurs and worse managers. They will not hesitate to dance to the tune of other masters, carrying out directives of the latter, some of which are unwittingly approved by the substantive minister whereas others are quietly processed in files at a lower level with the tacit connivance of other officers who are coerced.

 –          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 Supreme Court.

 –          That is why there is so much resistance to the full-fledged introduction of the Performance Management System in the CS.

–          The way forward: Objectivity, full 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: creating 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.

Singapore is corruption-free, and meritocracy prevails. We are no doubt trying hard here, but political interference, and communal, ethnic and racial considerations to varying degrees still come into play in many decisions. And this is where we need the right sort of leadership all the time and at all levels. Ask any civil servant at high level in Mauritius what sort of pressure can be brought to bear, even accompanied by hardly-veiled threats at times, in certain matters, and then we will get a truer picture of how difficult is the environment and atmosphere within which the civil service functions.

It is good that the Prime Minister himself realizes this, because we do not believe that changing to a presidential system will necessarily improve matters, at least at certain levels of functioning. Because it does not follow that there will be an equivalent transformation of practice or mindset. For example, do all the decisions of a statutorily constituted board in any ministry have to be approved by the minister, save those which are provided for in the act governing the board, or those where the board seeks such approval for reasons that it clearly spells out to the minister? And yet, in a number of ministries, this is imposed, to the detriment of the country in terms of general governance, and of course to those which the decisions concern in case the minister decides to go against the board’s decision – although there are limits to this exercise of power on his part. Thankfully – never mind that he can throw a tantrum if he is gently but forcefully reminded of this.

But thank goodness that there also boards of which we are aware that they will not allow any hanky-panky, in spite of being forced to review decisions without, as is to be expected, any new substantive element being submitted as justifying such request. This is where we are convinced that the present system itself can be strengthened, if only the right signal is firmly sent from the top to everybody concerned that statutory boards and similar structures must be allowed to carry on with their work without any meddling whatsoever. And there must be some mechanism whereby information about any such attempts reaches the highest level so that the corrective action can be taken immediately.

On the other hand, it must also be remembered that the country operates within the limits of the jurisdiction in place, and decisions taken must respect the laws of the land. If the legislator wants newer developments to take place, then the appropriate legislation must perforce be established so as to meet the requirements of the sector concerned. Even the most compliant bureaucrat will not – and must not – bend the rules to accommodate requests that are not receivable, and the hierarchical superior must clearly understand that constraint so as not to clash unnecessarily or to expect that what cannot be done should be done somehow. Again, it is a question of accountability, and who is prepared to assume responsibility in law?

Because, in the ultimate analysis, this is what guarantees the integrity of the polity and projects the image of the country and, by extension, that of its leadership. Do the leaders appreciate this truism?

* Published in print edition on 28 January 2011

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