Ministerial Notes: ‘Approved’ or simply ‘Seen’?

By TP Saran 

Several observers have commented that one of the fallouts of the so-called MedPoint scandal is that the response of civil servants to ministerial instructions need no longer be unconditional acquiescence, particularly in cases where such instructions involve non-compliance with established procedures, rules and regulations or have implications in terms of conflict of interest. Union leaders have stated unequivocally that a civil servant is entitled to say ‘NO’ when he has sufficient grounds to take such a serious stand. It can be taken as a rule of thumb that if a minister insists on fast-tracking or giving priority to a file, then officers handling that file must take double care to ensure that there isn’t something fishy going on. Ministers can be very irrational; often they take brash decisions which they expect to be implemented without even having considered what these entail in terms of resources and other parameters, and are quick to want to find scapegoats if their decisions – which are more like wishes that are cut off from realities – cannot be followed through because of genuine constraints.

All the more reason for civil servants to be very meticulous about all aspects of the processing of files, and if need be seek legal advice on the more sensitive or potentially controversial ones even if this causes some delay – better to be safe than sorry. Of course, if there are deadlines to be met these must be respected so as not to affect the efficiency and smooth running of the sector concerned, and any responsible officer will always act conscientiously and responsibly to fulfil such obligations.  

‘Abdication’ of public officers? 

Mention has been made of the ‘abdication of public officers’ vis-à-vis their respective ministers, with allusion to eminent bureaucrats in the past who stood up to ministerial authority when the occasion so demanded and got their way after defending their case with the relevant facts and figures backed up by cogent argumentation. Why, there are even a few examples of issues being taken up to prime ministerial level – in this very country – with, subsequently, ministers having to answer.

Interestingly, a number of who those who have pronounced themselves are either academics or ex-politicians and others such as some journalists who are very good at theorizing – but none of whom has ever been in the shoes of or been civil servants. This weakens their case. Unfortunately, they cannot be forgiven as Jesus did when he appealed to his Father in heaven to forgive those who had crucified him, for they ‘know not what they do.’ Because, here the agenda is to hit at the bureaucracy in general, overtly pointing fingers at what is in fact systemic and structural inefficiency which they do not know anything about, and for which the political process – which includes overbearing politicians — is to a large extent responsible.

They make light of saying ‘NO’ – as if it’s just like that, say ‘No’ and it’s done! Their ignorance speaks volumes for themselves! They have no notion of the context and the vulnerabilities to which civil servants are exposed. To start with, the political masters of today they have to deal with are a far, far cry from the mostly highly educated, civilized, cultured and suave ones of days gone by. They had the decency to restrict themselves to mainly policy and strategy matters, and when it came to the nitty-gritty which they were not familiar with they were happy to leave it to those, bureaucrats and technicians, who knew better. Of course there were exceptions, but they were few and far between. They would at least take the trouble to listen, and truly when they referred to the ‘national interest’ they meant it, and they knew what it meant. Unlike nowadays, when the national interest means self-interest: on that score nobody, even the lay public, will be fooled anymore.

Further, in those days, there was a greater respect for the rule of law and legalities, and for institutional mechanisms which were considered to be a bulwark against any intrusive or biased tendencies. Recent dispensations have shown scant regard for established structures and institutions, and played with the Constitution. The ultra-fast dismantling of the ECO, the recourse to advice outside the State Law Office in the first great mega-scandal of recent times (the Illovo deal) come to mind as having triggered the bypass and non-constructive criticisms of institutions and court decisions. That the country has gone further down this slippery slope is directly attributable to the political element.

The critics and representatives of civil servants have to appreciate how difficult it is for the latter to function under extreme pressure and under swords of Damocles. Beyond merely talking, the union leaders, especially, must support the civil servants in more active ways, and provide them with the robust framework within which they can stand up to the undue pressures they are subjected to. Then only one can begin to clear up the Augean stables that the political class has made of the civil service, otherwise everyone should just shut up. And certainly not go on about reforms which have not and will never take place. 

And what about ministers who ‘see’ and
don’t ‘approve’?
 

This is a variant that is used by certain ministers who avoid taking decisions and assume the attendant responsibility, but give verbal orders. When the officers concerned prepare a minute in file and move it up to the minister for the latter’s approval, what they get instead of ‘approved’ is a scribbled ‘seen’ – which anyone with simple horse sense will understand to mean that the minister is conveniently trying to escape from his responsibility in case there is a query, and this will inevitably happen when somebody raises an objection. And these days, this may go right up to ICAC. Can the civil servant afford to accept a simple ‘seen’? The answer is no. He must go back again and again, as long as it takes to have a formal approval. If that is not obtained, then the project or whatever must be kept in abeyance until such approval is obtained in black and white. Otherwise even the minister risks being hauled up to answer to ICAC, and rightly so.

Given such escapisms on the part of ministers and sundry politicians, it is up to the political leadership to lay down clear guidelines and principles to allow the civil service, and civil servants, to perform their work without duress and take the policies of government forward.

And we have not said the last word about policy-making yet.

Before broadening the backs of civil servants to endure the whims of ministers and government, what about the government coming out with a ‘Manual of Practice and SOPs for Politicians and Ministers’?

That, indeed, would be some progress. It would also facilitate the work of the much reviled civil servant, and help to avert scandals of which this country has had enough and can certainly do without.


* Published in print edition on 29 July 2011

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