The need for appropriate structures, systems – and people!
In last week’s issue of this paper V. Bhardwaj in his article Finance and Planning – Together or Apart makes some very pertinent remarks about how confusion can reign and lead to dysfunction when roles and responsibilities are not clearly understood and demarcated in the running of the affairs of the country.
As in the nature of things the Ministry of Finance is an apex ministry, any decision taken there has repercussions across the whole of the Civil Service. We have the flagrant example of the current scramble to do delayed justice to about 2700 civil servants, because of the misappropriation of human resources planning that led to a confrontation between two arms of government. That could have been done without in the first place if everyone stuck to his attributions rather than trying to go beyond the area of one’s expertise and understanding. Or was it an attempt to exercise authority when one wasn’t mandated to do so?
A similar situation threatened the governance of the Bank of Mauritius where it would seem that a gap in the legislation – attention to which had been drawn and amendment pressed for – paved the way for certain liberties to be taken. This also had to do with a mode of working which, as an editorial in this paper pointed out, ‘invited the politicians to delve into matters that the central bank alone should have been competent to deliver without any external interference,’ a process ‘by which politicians have glorified their proteges by twisting the legislation to give unmanageable powers to single individuals.’ And as the editorial rightly queries, ‘Should politicians not have foreseen the perpetuation of conflict that such legal dispositions would give rise to?… Why has the situation of conflict been allowed to endure for so long?’ Such an unhealthy state of affairs was eminently avoidable ‘if politicians had decided to keep their hands off the institution and if they had taken the decisions that were warranted at the right time.’
These two episodes show how a weakness in structure may be exploited by misguided people and result in malfunctioning of a system, rendering it inefficient with impacts that can be widespread the higher in the system the wrong takes place.
The nexus structure-system-people is important to understand because on it rests the whole edifice of the proper functioning of institutions. Many politicians if not most cannot make the distinction between strategy/policy and operations. On the other hand, in many a case their immediate interlocutors within a ministry, namely the SCE or PS, unlike their more rigorous and principled counterparts of the days gone by, shy away from pointing out what is what and prefer to take the path of least resistance by kowtowing to the wish or whim of the politician especially if he is a minister. One might wonder whether the functionary can take the risk of offending the politician and put his job in jeopardy: the issue is pitched at a higher level – how far is one prepared to stand up for what is right and not merely convenient? Ask people in the know, and they will give you examples of politicians who have had to tuck in their tails when presented with solid argumentation. Not everything is possible – or allowable.
But it is also a fact that it is through the political process – OK let’s say the politician – that policy changes can be brought about. The merger at the Ministry of Finance, as explained by V. Bhardwaj, mixed up strategic planning and policy formulation, evaluation and analysis with the operational aspects of deliverables. And this is reflected in all other sectors too, where there is no proper policy formulation cell that one can speak of. In other words, there is no formal structure for ongoing thinking, which would evolve policy and guide action, and at the very least there would be a fall back position for both the policy maker and the functionary should things not work out. But this cannot be the initial premise for the running of affairs at national level! That can only be a shared vision, and the actors for its articulation have perforce to work within agreed frameworks where the rules of the game are clear to everyone concerned – and they are reminded regularly about the latter. This can only strengthen their resolve to have the right things done the right way, so that the country as a whole benefits.
We must draw attention again to the two incidents referred to at the beginning of this article to illustrate how things can go terribly wrong and lead to avoidable confrontations if there is no respect for boundaries. Flexibility yes, but not crossing over! Everyone has a role to play, and the example must come from the top. As we get into the electoral fever, let the contenders for the people’s votes remember that as a priority so that when they are elected and are called upon to assume responsibility they do not mess things up.