Time to strip the Civil Service of its superfluous hierarchies

By  TP Saran

This column, indeed this paper in general, has consistently supported the cause of Civil Servants, on the grounds that their contribution to the running of the government machinery is genuine, solid and deserves to be acknowledged. This is even more so because they work under tremendous pressure, not least that of the political type, even being publicly blamed by political leaders on occasions. In spite of this, juggling with resource constraints and having little margin for autonomous decision-making, they have yet managed, despite these and other odds, to steer the destiny of this country in the right direction after Independence. The names of some of them are legend, and the country can be justly proud of them.

At the same time and by the same token, however, we have not hesitated to criticise bureaucratic heavy-handedness in the Civil Service, the venality of some Civil Servants, the failure of others to take firm stands when the occasion demanded, their relative reluctance if not laziness in the building of strong institutions, the ‘Yes Minister’ attitude of some for personal reasons — amongst other issues that we have considered in relation to governance and the critical role that Civil Servants possessing integrity and honesty can play in it.

And precisely because of our principled stand, we believe that there are limits to stretching the Civil Service. We do not think it is proper to re-employ burn-out higher officers and sundry advisers who have no special professional or technical qualities.

We concede, though, that under certain circumstances and to temporarily palliate a gap, the country may need the services of someone with exceptional talent and skills. Such people would be professionals who would be highly qualified and competent in specific fields, with a corporate type and level of training and exposure (Mc Kinsey or equivalent anyone?) including at international level, with a proven track record, and would thus be posted by selection after a proper and thorough grilling by a high level panel to the few ministries whose technical complexity and specificity were in need of their skills and level of understanding. They would therefore act as the technical leaders in their domains and would be supported administratively by officers drawn from the usual stream who are normally selected mostly on the basis of their seniority. However, some of the latter could certainly have abilities and qualities that went beyond the purely administrative, and therefore narrowly focused aspect.

Frustration among existing cadres

Having conceded this point, we hasten to add that appointments at this level should be exceptions rather than the rule. They should only be made when the specific departments have come to the conclusion that such temporary and exceptional appointments would bridge a specific gap which hinders the said departments from achieving their missions fully. It need be borne in mind that no supernumerary appointment can be made in this manner without risking to frustrate the potential and eroding the loyalty of the existing personnel, especially those at the higher levels. Ad hoc appointment of outsiders to substantive posts in the service frustrates and demotivates the existing dedicated and competent public servants. It not only takes away the latter’s opportunity to shine in the service. It demotivates. It takes away their chance of getting promoted to a higher level of responsibility for no fault on their part.

And when any such appointments are done for political and ethnic or obscure reasons, then all this drum-beating about having the national interest in mind and at heart by politicians is seen to be but empty rhetoric. As Mr Awadh Balluck, a minority shareholder of Air Mauritius, put it so firmly in an interview he gave to the l’express newspaper, ‘il faut arrêter de voir Air Mauritius comme un endroit où on peut faire du dumping politique.’

We don’t need a dumping politique in the Civil Service either. If that is not stopped, this important pillar of the country will crumble just the same.

If government wants to match its words with action, then it should forthwith review its policy, and stop this rigmarole of filling posts without a rigorous selection process – why not by Talentaris for example? — to identify exceptional individuals. Further, no external appointee at a high level in the departmental hierarchy should be given a contract for more than a year if he/she is exceptionally gifted, at the end of which there should be an assessment exercise starting from the ground up – as is done in many institutions – through an anonymous questionnaire, and only afterwards, if the outcome is favourable, an extension of another year could, at the most, be granted.

 To effect change for the better:
PM’s prerogative, unutilized

Given that the Prime Minister has total control – i.e. is not primus inter pares as the Westminster system is supposed to be – the onus is on him to strip the Civil Service of its superfluous hierarchies. If he gives this kind of signal right away, it would only go to confirm his attachment to the serious quest of efficiency in the service.

Will he take that bold step – for it is still not too late – or will he condemn ministries, especially the highly complex technical ones, to remain under the stifling administrative repression that some see coming?

He will do a great service to direction in the Civil Service, and to the country, if he kept in mind that ‘an opportunity lost is a loss of opportunities.’ The opportunity is still present, and it’s up to him to act rather than mildly endorse damaging decisions taken, because mid-course correction is a perfectly acceptable option in modern management and in strategic decision-making.

* Published in print edition on 2 March 2012

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