Other ways to do things?

The broom of today may smack of more of the same, much more some would say. Yet we feel that there may be better ways to do things

The case seems to have been made that our important regulatory institutions, vetting and counter-balance processes, are unable or insufficient to guarantee good governance, getting value for public funds, preventing unexplained departures from transparent practices, and avoiding a Republic where political fiat dictates the run of events, whatever the regime in office (and virtually every combination has been tried over the past twenty-five years). Where did we go wrong and how long can we continue the traditional way of doing things?

Audit reports are temporarily convenient for an incoming regime, embarrassing at the end of a mandate, and much political mileage can be drawn from their more shocking findings, yet we all know that in coming years we will, in all likelihood, face more cringing Audit Reports. Unless, of course, a determined effort is made to find and apply new modes of control of public expenditures during project execution, rather than relying on a postmortem Audit, however useful and necessary.

One wonders whether trigger alarm bells, calling for rapid external or neutral evaluation, should not be mandatory and in-built for all major projects. Say, an X% variation in costs or delays or variations should automatically prompt an external evaluation, perhaps by the Public Accounts Committee or a specific, independent Management Audit Bureau, provided either is turned into a dog with some credibility and teeth.

We seem to have more regulatory institutions for the financial sector than fingers on a hand, each with limited and specific purview, each with high-sounding Boards, Chairpersons and Directors and yet our mechanisms and institutions have dismally failed to identify or stem the corrosion from the Sunkai type affairs, the Vacoas Multi-purpose Cooperative Society or the alarm bells around the BAI state of finances since 2009 or 2010, whose impact on public finances and international repercussions are yet to be fully disclosed or assessed. We are informed that a new Commission might be added to tackle Financial Crimes. Perhaps the Mauritian way to handle things calls for a Commission to oversee the workings of the different Commissions.

We sometimes hear editorialists lament that the generation of post-independence great servants of the public good and service have gone forever, save for a few notable exceptions. Few of them pause to wonder how public servants are expected to tender their best, honest, professional advice under the constraints and damoclean sword the body politic has imposed over their heads. The constitutional amendment embodied in Clause 113 of the Constitution gives mammoth clout to the body politic over the lives and responsibilities of public servants, even in the variety of parastatals. Outright dismissals are but the ultimate weapon of dissuasion: one can imagine the range of threats sufficient to cow down even the bravest of souls.

When the “scratch my back” carrot is not enough, we can imagine the threatening sticks: reposting to remote areas, stalling of career prospects, waylaying to obscure jobs, not-so-gentle reminders of retaliation can even extend to families and relatives. We doubt if anybody would concur that this is a recipe for getting the best for the country from our civil and para-civil functionaries. Nor from the unceremonious sackings at political change of guards, a process that has been pushed to its limits recently, when even the highest office-bearers of the country, including the President of the Republic, felt the brunt of rash political overlords.

Almost everybody believes the connected Councillor or Agent, the local MP, the Minister are the only ones who can redress a particular situation or facilitate the permit or licence, even if it goes against some regulation or other. Stray dogs, beach hawkers, taxi permits, ‘tabagie’ licenses next to a school, wanderingly fixed street-vendors, market stalls where you can expand regally onto the narrow public pathways, lagoon skippers who believe they have a license to override every regulation, you name it, the politician is there to weigh in on the issue. And damn the political guy who says sorry, can’t intervene there? Why do many feel compelled to turn to the politic or to the private airwaves to vent frustration when everything conforms to requirements? In most cases, do we even know who to turn to and how many hurdles have to be overcome when there’s a simple matter of a glaring pothole in the road or a neighbour’s dog is savagely on rampage?

It is even more uninspiring to note that at independence we were more or less on a par with Singapore in terms of GNP, population mixity and British-handed institutions. We all realise that if a Singaporean public sector manager were confided an institution (port, airport, airline, post office, traffic, roads, University,…) you could safely bet your last belly button that he or she would start by setting the highest attainable objectives against measurable and objective performance and cost criteria. And that their body politic would almost wholeheartedly help and push in that drive.

Singapore has, I believe, only two public Universities (and a newer distance education one), but both probably rank among the finest in Asia and probably on the top 50 of international Universities. We have seven public tertiary institutions, a few catering for barely 1000 students, none of which even rank on the top 50 of African universities. We have probably more often heard Ministers say expand intake, or lower entrance requirements or provide easier access to social ends or cut costs or keep fees as low as possible rather than “Come up with a comprehensive program to reach the top 50 within 5 years”. Where did we go wrong and how do we really change things around? Or with the availability of highly regarded international brands, should the institutions we were once proud of, be allowed to fritter away into some low-cost zone dishing out cheaper graduate outputs?

We could probably say the same for the costs of political patronage that hovers over other key sectors and activities from national airline to road development. The question is whether we are ready to reach out for a different way of doing things. To fight fraud and scams more effectively. To root out inefficiencies. To stem the political overlording. To develop ambitions for institutions and for the country. The noubanism, the overriding role of body politic, the satisfaction with humdrum targets, with loyalty at the expense of competencies, the lobbyings around every post and decision, are matters that have become ingrained.

The broom of today may smack of more of the same, much more some would say. Yet we feel that there may be better ways to do things and that we need not lose hope.

  • Published in print edition on 11 September 2015

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