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LExpress: 12 & 19 September 2011

Public Sector- To reform or not to reform? That is NOT the question

That trade unions brace themselves up against the public sector reform is hardly surprising. However, when in the wake of the recent indictment of high ranking officials, we see retired top civil servants contradict themselves in the press, it is a totally different matter. While one said we badly need a Public Service Act, another one said this is mere literature: what civil servants need is a sens de ltat. This is revealing of the malaise that has pervaded the public sector ever since administrators have had to cope with the ever increasing encroachment of politicians on their hitherto sacrosanct bureaucracy. Civil servants seem to have lost their bearing, and public service reform is not going to make it easier. The end justifies the means seems to be the new mantra. This is not unique to Mauritius. Most countries which have navigated through reform regimes during the past two or three decades have seen their public sector employees grappling with similar confusions. The book written by David Osborne and Ted Gaeblers, Re-inventing Government, proved to be so influential that today academics are at odds to explain how centuries old traditions of public administration could have so easily surrendered to nascent and still unproven business theories. As if to prove the civil servants right, the recent financial crisis has revealed systemic weaknesses in the market and has brought to the fore the failure of the government in regulating and preventing such cataclysm from happening. Yet public sector reform was not without its virtues. There has been widespread recognition of inefficiencies in both government and public sector agencies and the pressures on the public budgets were enormous. Worsening economic conditions forced most governments to privatise and introduce private sector methods of management where privatisation was not warranted, particularly in what is now called the wider public sector. The OECD identified three main empirical reasons that justified delegation and devolution of centralised powers to agencies. Firstly it provided managerial autonomy to entities with specialised functions, thus allowing them to provide better services and escape cumbersome administrative and legal obligations of vertically integrated ministries. Secondly, it resulted in the decoupling of policy making from policy implementation, thereby ensuring freedom from politically motivated interference, the introduction of managerialism (essentially market based systems and incentives), independent decision making and greater involvement of citizen and professionals in the decision-making process. Finally, it enabled collaborative partnerships between organisations, as for instance, between central and local governments, as well as with the private sector. Devolution and delegation brought their own problems, as they ended up in the fragmentation and disarticulation of the state. To take again the example of the financial crisis, information and regulatory powers were so dispersed that there was no centralised institution that could comprehend the financial risks involved, and coordinate appropriate policies and regulations. In the case of Bernie Madoff, the Securities Exchange Commission had all the information needed to detect the fraud that was being perpetuated, but it was held in different divisions and in different files, and there was no one who could have a complete picture until the financial pyramid collapsed.

Failure to monitor and regulate effectively is only one of the undesired outcomes of the new governance regimes. There is also concern for failed accountability. Political accountability is indeed viewed as the highest value in any democratic system, and this is enshrined in traditional public administration and public law. However, the encouragement of entrepreneurial management, which favours end results rather than due process, has rendered accountability more diffuse. This goes against Westminster traditions of governance which still hold ministers accountable for all policy failures, even though they may not have been responsible for policy initiation or implementation. Distributed governance has thus become a key challenge to the organisation and functioning of government. According to OECD, part of this challenge is to increase transparency and accountability in autonomous public sector entities without compromising management flexibilities, which means improving the trust of citizens as well as managerial efficiency. Governments will also need to improve institutional clarity by clearly defining the objectives of agencies and establishing accountability mechanisms that are grounded on sound governance principles. How, for instance, can agencies or state owned enterprises be held accountable for poor performance when they are called upon to deliver politically motivated social programmes, or have a recruitment policy that are not in keeping with their objectives. Finally, what is also needed is the capacity by central government to steer and monitor performance of agencies in a transparent way, through well designed performance management systems. Experience elsewhere has shown that this has not always been the case, in spite of the deployment of sophisticated technology backed by an armada of experts. Public sector values as well as inhibiting work practices are deeply rooted in culture and traditions. They are so enduring as to outlive all sporadic attempts to infuse new management methods. These are precious lessons from abroad which can help Mauritius steer its way in the public sector reform under way. The challenge of governments today is to integrate the best practices of private sector management without damaging the public sector ethos, which dwells essentially on values of equality, fairness and social justice. Equally important, public servants need to re-discover a profession that once owned impressive insight into public administration in a democracy. And they need to put this at the service of their political masters if we are to avert the kind of disasters that now befall countries like US, where the word government seems to have lost all its meaning. Public sector reform goes well beyond performance based pay for civil servants. It entails a redefinition of public sector governance, to deal with the dichotomies of private sector methods of management and the accountability that democracy demands. As regards this famous sens de ltat, this rather nebulous concept seems to have been lost somewhere in the many alleys that led to the New Public Management and with the coming on stage of political managers. To get it back, we may have to wait for some time, until we reach a consensus on how to improve on our system of government. There has to be a greater degree in the permanence of government action without compromising the democratic principles that have served us rather well up to now. We need a system which allows elected representatives and administrators to work together to shape public policies that achieve politically negotiated outcomes and to effectively control and account for their implementation. The solution to public sector reform is essentially a political one. Deva Armoogum 8 August 2011