22 March 2006

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Business Today

Cleaning our stables for SmartCity

Efficiency in the civil service is sine qua non for the smooth running of a hi-tech mega investment

A big PR razzmatazz was drummed up three years ago when a White Paper entitled A Public Service for the 21st Century was launched. It announced new public service charters. These would commit departments to deliver on what citizens could expect the public service to provide them with. Government services were to be packaged as part of a consumer-oriented programme, in which the taxpayer would be considered king, or at least be acknowledged to have significant rights.
In reality, one hears complaints about the contemptuous ways by which citizens' specific requests are dealt with throughout a wide range of public services. This is just as prevalent in areas where IT breakthroughs are allegedly being made, as in the more traditional sectors of civil service activity. Now with SmartCity’s agreement in the making and many moons later in 2006 we are still doubting whether we can match the effectiveness in delivery that is expected to process permits for investors from Dubai. Down the years one can thank God for little mercies and the hard won quality improvements but critics still cry out that it remains a bloated service, grossly over-manned.
There is no prize for guessing that it is under-deployed, not a few of its workforce made indolent by an assumption that their post is a job for life. Although wages parity with the private sector has been reached in many grades it is a pity that productivity has not increased in line with the private sector.
But is there a solution in sight considering the fact that politicians are fearful of trailing in political patronage? This time the claptrap is for more efficiency which is sine qua non given that investors in Dubai are reputed to have their licence to operate fully approved in 10 days flat. The e-Minister Dr Gatt wants to jettison the Service in the rarefied air of cyberspace efficiency. We all wish him well.
Now almost three years since the White Paper was issued and the general feeling is that while bold attempts are made by Management Efficiency Unit to stir the pot there is a foregone conclusion that the patient is brain dead and only a massive blood transfusion can revive him. The Opposition may well ask if this inertia on such an important part of the restructuring agenda is not bare faced prevarication.
Regrettably there is so much at stake. In his 2004 report outgoing Ombudsman Joe Sammut, himself a former head of the civil service, said there should be consistent, across-the-board application of redress for misadministration in the public service while he lamented of a general deterioration in the top-to-down attitudes of certain departments. It is perplexing why we have been papering the cracks rather than targeting the root of the problem. This is an unsolved mystery. Certainly accountability for management of the economy falls squarely on the government assisted by the Service.
Typically, the workforce goes on half days routine reminiscent of the Colonial days. Sadly all this occurs at the apex of the tourist season when it closes its shutters to the public at 1.00pm for three whole months. Repeatedly both FOI and the Malta Employers' Association (MEA) called on the government to spruce up the public sector rendering it more efficient, through a planned and phased reduction in extra manpower and for tighter control of expenditure in order to address the fiscal deficit. Both highlighted the need for the government to cut inefficient expenditure and trim duplication in agencies and weed out alleged conflicts of interest by political appointees wearing two many hats. Many theories are talked about by different columnists.
Principally they plead for urgent remedial action to avoid taxpayers’ monies being swallowed up in a vortex of unbridled bureaucracy, red tape and inefficiency. The opposition say reform will always be circumspect as long as we face fundamental problems such as lack of discipline, ministerial interference, lack of education, prolific bureaucracy, deficiency in levels of transparency, de-motivation, and the lack of a modern system of meritocracy. Perhaps now is the time that we can use some of the EUR853 million granted by the EU to finance a national retraining and staff motivation plan. With globalisation pounding our shores it is crucial that we gear up to face the challenge.
In spite of the thumping meted out to the ruling party following last week’s council elections it is wrong to retrench as the country badly needs to continue to restructure and upgrade its civil service. Cynics on the other hand lament that cosmetic surgery was administered in the past and the cure was skin deep. They stress that the solution to the problem does not lie in providing job guarantees, which private industry could certainly not give, but in helping to create the right political and economic environment that could help generate new economic growth. Equally important is making sure that the country provides the necessary training and retraining to public workers to achieve, insofar as this is possible, a dynamic knowledge-based team, able to meet changing needs in line with new technological developments that we shall face with the likes of SmartCity and other cyberspace type investors.
It is all very déjà vu. The pre-budget document issued last year hinted inter alia that surplus workers will be grouped in a pool to be re-deployed with productive schemes mustered by PPP schemes. Again, as an example one could not stop and ask why the armed forces are stretched to their limits with extra duties at detention centres when a pool of human resources can be utilised from the general service.
Party apologists constantly remind us of the good old days when we enjoyed better times and tasted the sweet outcome of a feel good factor. Alas, economists caution us that the reckoning has started and the chicks have come home to roost. Ostensibly, wage awards were meant to ensure that increases in public sector pay were directly linked to a superior value of service to the public. But has this materialised?
The answer is partly in the affirmative as we are witnessing a visible improvement but a lot remains to be done. The opposition says that benefits to citizens are hard to come by and the fly in the ointment is that government agencies and regulators have sought ways of increasing their charges to users. Some of these agencies are barefacedly announcing that they are reporting profits. Others point out how cosy regulators have responded to control abuse of dominant positions.
Just ponder on the paradox how the banking sector registers profits in double digits when the economy in general only grew by 2.5%. This remains a mystery to all and sundry.
Reverting back to the subject of bureaucracy, Dr Gatt has of late expressed caution that the civil service must not hinder progress when SmartCity’s investors apply for permits and to achieve a better turnaround suggested the benchmarking of departments. This is quite a Herculean task and would have needed the goodwill of ‘yes minister’ technocrats. As the nursery rhyme goes all the kings horses and all the king’s men could grant Dr Gatt’s desire to materialise in time to pave the way for SmartCity’s birth. Figuratively speaking he must have felt like a hermit in a desert lamenting that he needs the collective effort of his peers to achieve this noble objective. Hopefully, Dr Gatt will administer the medicine and apply surgery to spruce up bureaucracy. The nation wishes him well. Certainly, it will be the kindest cut of them all.

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Editor: Kurt Sansone
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