Public Infrastructure: It cannot and should no longer be business as usual


With the Ring Road and Terre Rouge-Verdun saga, one cannot but remain shocked by the gaping questions that surround the sound and professional planning, management and procurement of our public infrastructure developments, often at massive costs. In a country exposed to cyclones, floods, and unsettled mountain slopes, we have not been building roads since yesterday and many bridges, built a century ago, still proudly proclaim their resilience and “P.W.D” (Public Works Department) ancestry.

Post-independence, we have known the DWC (Development Works Corporation) era, set up in tough economic times to deliver public works and manage workfare programs in the mid-seventies. It had its hands and arms in numerous projects but was progressively turned into a grossly inefficient, loss-making behemoth where politicians, of every hue, were popularly known to overburden the payroll by dumping their protégés and grassroot activists. It was courageously axed in 2007 and employees redeployed, much against the usual opportunistic Opposition grumpings. Since then we have collectively accepted the tenet that public works, growing in size, complexity or value, would be better tendered out, international or local private sector tenderers being assumed to have far better consultants, professionals, engineers and project managers to deliver cost-effective solutions.

In 2007 it was already overdue that central government moves out of the construction of roads, drains, bridges and buildings. Its job should have consequently become simpler and at the same time far more crucial: concentrate its resources on sound and professional management of all steps, from clean tendering processes through works verification to payment authorisation and taking final delivery of the public infrastructure project. Ensuring overall value-for-money, minimum variations in costs and on-schedule delivery, clearly fell on government’s shoulders, its structures and professionals. With the help, wherever necessary, of specialist local or international consultants, recruited to guide or assist the design or the implementation of the project.

Seven years down the road, can we look back and say with some confidence that this has been a story of consistent achievements? Authorities have to find out where we went wrong as a country and how to prevent further mishaps. It goes beyond merely finding and “hanging” culprits, however much we may feel that those who failed to live up to the country’s expectations have to be called to account for recent botched road projects collectively costing taxpayers a fortune. True, any Minister, PS and Cabinet officers have to rely on professional advice tendered to them, but they undoubtedly have the responsibility to ensure that those Bodies under their purview are neither lackadaisical, nor incompetent, nor rife with conflicts of interest, nor rigged with comforting pat-on-the-back relations that have developed over the years between the same few biggie local contractors and those responsible for public interest oversight.

Ministry has the responsibility to implant continuous evaluations of public engineers and designers and to identify and remove those black sheep who repeatedly wander off-track with major cost implications for the humble taxpayer. The Minister should also have the acumen to understand when his body of professionals are likely to be out of their depth on particular projects. In which case he can opt for either solid outside expert consultants or for a turn-key approach where the preferred bidder/contractor takes full and sole responsibility for design, construction and delivery under a fixed-cost, fixed-time contract, with adequate warranties and monetary safeguards.

Political Lobbying

Mr Jean-Mee Desveaux, a knowledgeable witness if any, reminded us on air last week, that the Ring Road had precisely such a single designer-cum-contractor, namely Colas-Rhem Grinaker, who, having badly failed, have accepted full liability for redoing the botched up job. Both are important local firms with international affiliations. He points out that we would have got such a single design, build and deliver Terre Rouge-Verdun highway through restricted bidding to Chinese operators with a best quote for about Rs 2.7 billion with a single responsible international contractor. Thanks to intense political lobbying, the then government backed away and launched an alternative approach that has been far costlier, seems sub-standard or inadequately designed and a judicial claims imbroglio to boot, again with Colas (Mauritius) as one of the contracting parties involved.

Although politicians, having had their say in the bungled up saga, will walk away scot-free, Mr Desveaux calls for scuttling RDA staff and recruiting top-notch professionals. Desirable or necessary as this may seem, the investigation should be completed to get a fuller picture of inadequacies and failures at all levels. However, we need to find effective ways to prevent companies that bungle up jobs or leave a trail of unjustified cost escalations, variations and delays, with RDA consent if not downright complicity, from playing havoc with public funds. Perhaps the most effective stick would be legislation that enables authorities to blacklist such companies, their sister companies or their directors or shareholders from public tenders for graded time periods. In any event, it cannot and should no longer be business as usual.

The Attorney-General, the Minister of Good Governance and the new Minister of Public Infrastructure, with his urbanism background, should jointly have little difficulty in analyzing what major corrective measures are needed to overhaul the system. They would be wise to complete the review before commissioning any other road infrastructure project.

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Capital City Decongestion & the Highlands Administrative Capital

The national interest and common good have to prevail over inertia, vested interests or private lobbies

While on this topic of public infrastructure, one cannot fail but be bemused retrospectively by the gamut of capital-intensive road projects in the past ten years that have all been floated, studied and, some, conducted, all purporting to decongest traffic in, out and through the capital city. A rather chimeric Harbour Bridge that has swallowed millions on preliminary studies. A first-phase Ring Road that seems to go nowhere and which nobody in his right frame of mind would consider pursuing, far less under the supervision of RDA. The no-less bungled up Terre Rouge-Verdun highway. A planned Rs 25 billion LRT for the same Curepipe to capital city corridor. Was there method in all the flurry?

With the benefit of hindsight, wouldn’t the Alliance Sociale initiative way back in 2005 for an Administrative Capital at Highlands have been a far more effective consideration? It would have been completed by now, virtually at no costs to central government other than land and some access services, while providing thousands of jobs, effective decentralisation, capital city decongestion and a massive influx of FDI. Whatever the reasons it got mired and dismissed politically, we cannot but applaud the new government’s decision announced this week to revive the project that had attracted concrete interest from high-flying international companies.

Dozens of Ministries, major or minor, with their affiliated bodies, have no particular valid reason to be sited in Port Louis, if proximity of related administrative and decision-making offices are regrouped elsewhere. The numerous benefits of a planned Administrative Capital with integrated commercial, office and residential areas, have been detailed here and elsewhere and we can only hope that it will be implemented at the earliest. The national interest and common good have to prevail over inertia, vested interests or private lobbies.

* * *

Public Service Bill

Government has announced in its Parliamentary manifesto reading on Tuesday, a Public Service Bill with the intent “to clarify and secure the boundaries within the Executive, thus reinforcing transparency, accountability and integrity”. Time to reflect, as an outsider and non-interested party, on what Civil Service we have developed over the years and what we would like it to be. An inheritance of British rule, a proud Civil Service (popularly Whitehall) finds roots in what historian Lord Hennessy has described as “the greatest single governing gift of the nineteenth to the twentieth century: a politically disinterested and permanent Civil Service with core values of integrity, propriety, objectivity and appointment on merit, able to transfer its loyalty and expertise from one elected government to the next”.

That being the ideal, the Civil Service in UK has been the object since the seventies of numerous reports and recommendations aimed at improving performance or adapting its structures and processes to evolving times. However, the latest detailed examination by the House of Commons Public  Administration Select Committee (PASC 2013-2014) makes the critical point that the “assessment of Whitehall (by all previous reports) did not address the fundamental issue of the relationship between ministers and officials”, a complex issue of cardinal importance to good governance and democratic values.

While recurrent calls for adaptation to new times, better governance, greater productivity are regularly announced and are welcome, our core issue is different but more blatantly obtrusive and pernicious. Fundamental to the debate are the amendments to the Constitution introduced in 1982 that have torn asunder the basic tenets expressed cogently by Lord Hennessy. Namely,

  1. Appointment to certain offices

…(4) Where under any law other than this Constitution, an appointment is made to an office by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, or any other Minister or on his advice or after consultation with him, or with his approval, the holder of the office may, notwithstanding any provision to the contrary in this Constitution, be required to vacate the office at any time after a general election held after the appointment.

One can safely bet that no amount of Code of Ethics or Manual of Procedures will be effective guardians of good governance unless the all-encompassing nature of this paragraph and its pernicious influence on Public Service loyalty and professionalism, are addressed dispassionately and intelligently. Every incoming government needs the latitude to nominate those posts necessary for smooth implementation of its policies in the public and parastatal sphere. These need to be spelt out and conditions of termination or replacement handled with decorum and propriety.

After all, as a country we also need to attract competent individuals and professionals to serve the public good, often under pressure from media and politicians, beyond narrow boundaries of party loyalties. Can we really expect our body politic, with the required majority in the House, to actually amend the rules of the game that have, since 1982, permanently placed the Civil Service under the boot of the political masters of the day?


* Published in print edition on 30 January  2015

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