Civil Servants: A category at Increased Risk

By TP Saran

The ongoing saga of Medpoint and the events arising from the investigations at ICAC are focusing essentially on the correctness of procedures with respect to the sale of that private clinic to the government.

And given that Civil Servants (CS) of all grades and at all levels are the ones who are responsible for following the procedures or seeing to it that this is strictly done, the onus of responsibility falls on them. And they are the ones who are the first to be finger-pointed, charged or arrested whenever a breach of procedures is established, especially if there is a suspicion of corruption as defined in the Prevention of Corruption Act. That this definition is nuanced and that CS are subjected to pressures, especially of a political nature – overt, covert or occult — seems never to be taken into consideration by the other… CS who lay the charge. Pressures which they too may face!

For, let it be clearly understood by all citizens of this country: on most if not all matters (sensitive ones in particular) ministers never give instructions in writing.

Information gathered from various ministries yields some interesting details about the modes of communication by these exalted representatives of the people who, it must be remembered, are the highest decision and policy makers. We learn that during a meeting one such exclaimed: ‘Policy, what policy! I am policy!’ The reasons for the decisions they take, unless these come specifically in the form of a Cabinet decision ‘in file’ (and in red ink) are more often than not never too clear. And their instructions too are more likely to be akin to Hitlerian orders. See how Hitler ended up? In a bunker, by suicide.

So how do ministers communicate? Here is a partial list we have compiled: ‘see me’, ‘noted’, ‘approved’; sometimes there are some questions (different from queries, which would be too involved…); at other times, an officer would receive a call from ‘le adviser du ministre’: he is faceless, only a voice, and yet he never makes requests – he gives quasi-orders, and usually it is in the nature of a passe-droit. There is also the practice of scribblings on a piece of non-descript paper landing on an officer’s desk from an Assistant Secretary attached to the minister. And the officer is expected to take action – immediately, like ‘this person to be transferred today!” Justification? None. Is the officer concerned to effect transfer supposed to invent reasons? Mauritians should know that in fact they are supposed to do so!

And this is where the overzealous ones, who want to ingratiate themselves for selfish motives vis-à-vis the minister – such as wanting a promotion, or a trip for which they don’t match the required profile – excel. But now there’s ICAC, and all Mauritians are waiting with bated breath that it delivers by tracing all the way up to the source where instructions originated, and is able to identify who are the officers if any who willingly danced to the tune and who are those who, honest to goodness, had no option but to carry out instructions by virtue of the functions of their post or because of their subordinate position and were therefore under pressure to comply. ICAC must be able to discern this… it’s after all a question of credibility as well.

Incidentally, Mauritius must be the only country at this stage of development where, still, the justified transfer (for operational efficiency) of an attendant or a clerical officer can be prone to manipulation from the highest political levels, with a negative impact on the performance of the section concerned. And know what? The same political master will make loud noises about fairness, equity and social justice whenever he/she is on any platform facing the nation or his constituency, where those who have benefited from such irregularities will be in the frontline to clap and applaud every inanity that emanates from the mouth of the High.

Several commentators had already anticipated that CS would be scapegoated, and it is none too soon that union leader Tolsiraj Benydin has commented that CS are entitled to say ‘no’ to a minister. With their maturity and long-standing track record, he and Radhakrishna Sadien, another union leader, must go even further: they must hold regular meetings throughout the year with staff in all ministries, and give them clear guidance as to how they can do that – say ‘no’ – without incurring foul-mouthing or being blackmailed, with threat to their job. They would do a yeoman service to their followers, who feel abandoned at times like these.

In the present set-up of the Civil Service, CS are ever in a no-win situation, and it is hardly to be expected that subordinates will get support from their superiors. However, responsibility for this unhealthy situation is shared, because personal ambitions and undercutting of one another is also a reality in a system which has not been modernised along PPR lines so as to be more robust and more objective and transparent in its functioning. Performance assessment, such as it is, rests on an archaic ‘Confidential Report’ mechanism which is totally inadequate.

Until real reform is boldly undertaken and there is less rhetoric, any talk of the Singapore model is just that much hot air. And there will continue to be Medpoint-like scenarios, some cleverly hidden from public view, under any government and any permutation or combination of electoral alliance.

* Published in print edition on 8 April 2011

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