When top-brass of the civil service bend over more than prudently to assuage short-term political demands and desires, while propping up their own career, lifestyle and juicy perks on a variety of public sector Boards, it is more than proper administration or even management that is at stake. It concerns the country’s soul, its oxygen, its credibility
This is not another piece of summary public-sector bashing. Having, like many others, never- worked for the civil service and grasped its constraints first-hand, we can only get a feel of its quirkiness from information about personal and friends’ interactions with the sector, from the unending complaints of public service users on radio stations and from what we deduce or decipher occasionally from headline news.
I have also known many upper echelons who put in more than sixty hours over long periods, other dedicated folk who spend sleepless nights preparing budgets or overseas technical and ministerial missions and there are, without doubt, thousands of anonymous others in schools, hospitals or police stations or at other essential services who, often in difficult circumstances, with outdated or non-functional resources and on limited salaries, try to offer their best selflessly for the public good.
But, it is the questionable occurrences, the cumbersome administrative processes, the impression of a “who cares” philosophy, the dismissive behaviours of front-liners, and sometimes, it must be admitted, the lack of skills, knowledge or competencies, that hog the spotlight.
Who can with confidence say that the following story is fanciful in the Mauritian public sphere and would not be tolerated here? Once upon a time, a road, minor or major, is marked for public works, traffic diversion signs posted and inconvenience accepted by resigned users. Luckily, two weeks later, the contracted road diggers come by and with much gusto, dig up the road, leaving the earth mounds to cover half of the usable part of the road and the security guard-rails reduced to a bare minimum. Aha, ask the users, “works soon over, then?” “No idea mate, we just the digging team.”
Two or three weeks later, the layers come by and busily do their thing, laying some pipes over several days, much to the relief of the despondent users: “Works soon over, then?” “No idea mate, we just the laying team.”
And so on, at fortnightly or monthly intervals, come the earth fill-up team, followed by the resurfacing team and several months later, if heavy rains or lacking funds do not bring everything to a halt, the hapless road, bumpier and more bedraggled than ever before, is abandoned to users much too relieved to complain!
Who cares? It’s the peculiarly Mauritian way of getting things done and it is called muddling along. The users, you might demur, include low to high-level public servants, many using that stretch with their duty-free Japanese lollypop, plastic film still hugging the seats, but they look more resigned than the others. They have been overseas and marvelled at how roads look in Reunion, Europe or Kuala Lumpur, how road-work planning and execution are or should be done, but they know how public services work in the god-blessed country that has the resources to provide massive public purse relief for expat-destined smart cities.
Who would take bets on how long it will take public services to respond to a road pot-hole week by week enlarging its treacherous expanse or accumulating daily gallons of seeping water from a broken pipe, on a road frequently used by our public service cats?
That being said, clearly not all the responsibility lies with our babus. In many instances, the interface with the body politic adds its own crippling dimension. Who cares if the 400m of repairs to the new Terre Rouge-Verdun motorway looks set to take more than three years? Or if, after two years in office, the urgently needed grade-separated junction at Phoenix is still on the drawing boards? Or if the intense-use Chemin Vingt Pieds up north, without any foot or cycle path, is inceasingly a mortal danger to one and all? Or if the growingly acute water shortage up north is turning Virez Mam folk as wild as the promises they espoused in December 2014? Or if the highest administrator of the NDU had to be ignominiously treated before being re-instated, a stark reminder of the untold ravages of the vendetta spirit?…
We recalled previously that the cursor of power in our politico-administrative nexus had inexorably and damagingly been shifted in 1982 so far towards the political end of the spectrum that nobody could be confident of unbiased, objective and fearless input by top-notch bureaucrats to the high-riding polity. More than ever before, the latter has over the past two years exerted its unbridled and often reckless pursuits, imposing its political muscle over prudential governance or public good, even while our top-brass bureaucrats bent over, sometimes shockingly, to accommodate the political agenda of the day.
Can we honestly believe that Mr Sanspeur was the only astute advisor to foresee the massive risks and dangers of the Heritage City project that other public-sector top-brass administrators, including the High-Powered Committee, glowingly recommended? Can we honestly believe that the “gang of five” who, in troubling circumstances, shockingly fired Mr Megh Pillay, the SAJ appointee at Air Mauritius, did so without the prior knowledge of their political patrons? There are many unanswered questions our public service top-brass have to answer for.
In the early post-independence era, in phase with colonial lines of thinking, our public servants were known as Administrators, for that was the essence of their job, making sure processes and procedures were in place, respected and improved upon through advice when asked by politicians. A standard textbook for public service describes that period as follows: “Public administration conjured up an image of bureaucracy, life-long secure employment, ‘muddling through’ and lack of enterprise – dark suits, grey faces and dull day jobs.”
Some of that spirit of “muddling through” is probably still entrenched out there at various levels, even if many have embraced the more modern philosophy of “public management”, with concomitant higher ownership of processes, some greater sense of initiative, a customer orientation, accountability and a pro-active culture. It must be recognised that these are easier said than done in that vast behemoth where polity has consistently burrowed its nose to thwart decisions or impose its will.
But when top-brass of the civil service bend over more than prudently to assuage short-term political demands and desires, while propping up their own career, lifestyle and juicy perks on a variety of public sector Boards, it is more than proper administration or even management that is at stake. It concerns the country’s soul, its oxygen, its credibility and respectability in the eyes of international watchdogs, investment drivers and the population at large. Our fat cats cannot cozy up to the politics without due regard for the risks and dangers inherent in such abandon.