Reforming the public service.

The public service is a system. People are only one part

 BY NATIONAL FEDERATION PARTY LEADER

PROFESSOR BIMAN PRASAD

 

The Government’s civil service reforms are not just bad for Government employees. They are bad for us, the public, who pay for the civil service.

We all know Government services are ineffective. It can take weeks or months to apply for a permit or licence. The Ministry of Health can’t keep hospital medicines in stock. Ring a Government office at 8.15 in the morning – 15 minutes after starting time – and no-one will pick up the phone.  Why? Because morale is at an all-time low.

The Fiji First Government wants to put civil servants on three-year contracts. This is not about reform. It is to keep civil servants in fear of losing their jobs, so that they will do what Government Ministers say, cover up their mistakes and never question Ministers’ decisions.  In other words, civil servants will become part of their “all about politics” style of government.

What is the job of the public service?

In most democratic countries, the public service has qualified, independent people who are appointed on merit. They are the “permanent government.”

Politicians come and go. While politicians make laws in Parliament (some good, some bad) the basic functions of the Government – the hospitals, the schools, the registries, financial management – all go on.  And it is the civil servants who keep the government working, according to the laws.

Government Ministers, like all politicians, want to be popular. So they try to get things done which make them look good. This may not be lawful. For example, they may be overspending their Budget allocation or bypassing regulations. That is when a civil servant must be able to tell a Minister – “no”.

Sometimes politicians need experienced civil servants to tell them “this is why your idea will not work” or “we tried your idea 10 years ago and this is why it failed.” Civil servants are important voices of experience and caution.

This is why the public service should be independent. This has been the rule in democratic countries for centuries now. An independent public service is a tried and tested system. It is an important check on abuse of power.

The people are not the problem

The public is criticising the Government for its service failures. So the Fiji First Government says there must be “reform”. But of course they need someone to blame. So they have decided it is the civil servants’ jobs that must be “reformed”.

The public service is a system. It is a system of laws, regulations and policies. People are only one part of it. Those people include politicians, who must lead fairly and accountably.

But if the politicians’ laws are complicated and they breach regulations and the politicians do not apply their policies consistently, how can the civil servants make the system work?

The Government says “let’s threaten the civil servants with fixed term contracts to make them work harder.” But if the system is broken in the first place, how will threatening civil servants fix it?

Fiji’s World Bank Ease of Doing Business rankings have fallen from 34th ranked in 2007 to 101st now. For Ease of Starting a Business, Fiji has fallen from 55th ranked in 2007 to 160th now.

Any person who has to deal with a Government department for anything will tell you about the piles of paper they must submit – TIN No, passport biodata, certified copies of this, certified copies of that – for the simplest application.

Records are kept in paper files that go missing as they travel from office to office.  Government officers are told to travel to meetings with the Minister or Permanent Secretary. Then after one hour of waiting, they are told “the Minister is not available.”

Small decisions in every department have to be approved by the Minister. If the Minister is travelling overseas or unavailable, too bad – everything must wait.

So demoralised civil servants just go through the motions and get through the day. The Ministers do not want their views or the benefit of their experience.  If they question a Government decision they can be (the now famous expression) “sent home”. They do not receive the credit for any good they do because their Ministers must claim it all, usually with a Government-owned camera rolling for primetime viewing in the evening on a tame TV station.

But if anything goes wrong, it is always the civil servants’ fault.

Fixed term contracts

The fixed-term contracts are only about creating fear.  The Government says that civil servants will be measured on their “performance”. But under this government, we know what “performance” means. It simply means doing what you are told by the Minister.

Recently a civil servant told the Prime Minister that fixed-term contracts would make it harder for civil servants to get loans to buy their homes. The PM’s reply was “tell the bank to call me.”  As if the PM will now be able to tell a bank to give somebody a loan!

What NFP will do

  • We will hand control of the public service to an independent Public Service Commission. The PSC will be responsible for hiring, transfers and discipline of public servants – on merit. No Minister will be able to play favourites. The Minister must take the staff member the PSC allocates. If a Minister has a problem with a civil servant, the Minister can complain to the PSC, like anyone else. No civil servant will be arbitrarily “sent home”
  • There will be no fixed-term contracts. Civil servants will have job security, so they can tell politicians what they need to hear, not what they want to hear
  • We will increase the retirement age of civil servants to 60
  • We will reform the public service system as a whole. First, we will ask civil servants how to improve it. We want simpler laws, less paperwork, electronic record-keeping and better use of office technology to cut time and travel costs; we want civil servants to have more authority to make quick decisions, without political interference, to give people the services they need
  • We will re-deploy civil servants for better accountability and management of the Government. We will give more staff to the Auditor-General, to the Ombudsman and to internal audit and to support a new Freedom of Information Act.

The government cannot function without able, experienced public officers whose independence and enthusiasm is assured.  The Fiji First government also has a fixed term.  We now have a chance, through the ballot box, to make sure they are “sent home”!