Paper on the Public Service as a Learning Organisation
Presented at CAPAM Conference in Singapore on the 25th October 2004 by Krish Ponnusamy, Senior Chief Executive, Ministry of Civil Service Affairs & Administrative Reforms (Mauritius)
In this year's message on the occasion of the United Nations Public Service Day on the 23rd June which is also celebrated as the Africa Public Service Day, Mr Kofi Annan, UN Secretary -General 'encouraged young people to pursue with pride a career in the public service'.
Having read Mr Annan's message, I said to myself how appropriate are his words in the context of our discussions this morning on the theme - The Public Service as a Learning Organisation.
How do we prove that the Public Service is a Learning Organisation? One does not have to write a thesis, quoting from the works of dozens of Professors on Public Administration and Management. I have chosen to tell you what I have learnt from the Public Service on the basis of past and present experiences.
The Public Service represents the best part of my life. I have known only one employer and that's the Government of Mauritius. When I completed my secondary schooling, my father who had to look after eight children told me that he would not be able to send me to University and that I had to start working to support the family. He advised that I apply for a post of Clerical Officer in the Civil Service in line with my qualifications. When I got the job, he said with conviction that with that first step in the Civil Service I could, with hard work, discipline and perseverance go much further.
Like many of my contemporaries, I started my career in the Civil Service without any formal training. The country which was not yet independent and still under British rule could not afford to provide training or induction courses to in-coming Civil Servants. It was essentially on the job learning for all of us. All the senior officers and colleagues found time and made it a point to guide our first steps. We learned the arduous but the right way, especially from the British Public Officers who were on the verge of leaving the country.
I was privileged to witness the transition period, the transfer of power and the transformation of the Civil Service from colonial days to the Independence era. In preparing for Independence, the Government of Mauritius adopted a policy of gradual mauritianisation of the Civil Service, giving sufficient time for capacity building and for Mauritians to fully take over from the British Public Officers.
As a Clerical Officer, I was what can be termed a raw material, but jumping successfully over each hurdle and being exposed to formal training when I reached the level of Administrative Officer, I felt I had become a human resource, responding to the needs of the Civil Service of independent Mauritius.
The Government could only rely on the Civil Service to ensure timely implementation of its policies. The Civil Service responded with vigour and patriotism as the country steered from a monocrop economy, i.e. sugar plantation to a diversified one. It added new pillars, namely the creation of an industrial free zone and tourism. Public Officers had to be sent on training abroad mainly in Commonwealth countries to acquire the much needed skills to support the new economic pillars, to service the new technical Ministries and also to interact with the emerging Private Sector. Today, we have added two more pillars, namely the financial sector and the ICT sector. The Public Service itself has grown into a complex organisation, with some 90,000 Public officers serving 25 Ministries, 22 Departments and a over a hundred parastatal bodies and local authorities for a population of 1.2M and a total working force of about 500,000.
By and large, the Mauritius Public Service is a place where competition is held on a high level playing field. Normally the best and most deserving ones reach senior positions, irrespective of caste, colour or creed or community. One of my revered gurus in the Public Service and from whom I learned an awful lot was a former Permanent Secretary in the Prime Minister's Office who rose to the highest position as the Secretary to Cabinet & Head of the Civil Service.
One day he dropped in our office and tipped us that he would soon have to leave the Civil Service, but he did not say a word where he was going. I listened to him and ventured a guess. I said "Governor-General" and he walked away, smiling. We were enthused when it was officially announced a couple of days later that Sir Dayendranath Burrenchobay was appointed Governor-General of Mauritius. This was the exceptional journey of a public officer who through years of learning all the ropes of the Public Service became the highest personality of the country. Even after retirement as Governor-General, he chaired a high level Committee on Reforms in the Civil Service. What an example to follow!
One of the interesting features of the Mauritius Public Service is that senior Public Officers have, since Independence, learned to rub shoulders with Ministers and politicians from all parties. It is a unique fact that Mauritius has always been governed by coalition Governments. However, the parties in the coalition Governments change, according to the nature of the political alliances, but the senior Public Officers have to compose with them. The synergy between the political class and the Public Service paid handsome dividends. The good side of this situation is that Government policies do not change drastically and that all parties, having been in Government one time or the other, know that Public Officers behave in an apolitical and neutral manner. The main thrust of Government vision has remained fundamentally the same, i.e. consolidating the economy, improving the living conditions ensuring an efficient utilisation of resources and a better distribution of the national cake.
I am proud to say that I am a product of the Public Service. During the years in office, I accomplished a myriad of functions. Amongst others, I was asked to -
(a) head a number of Ministries, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Regional Cooperation;
(b) organise regional and international conferences;
(c) act as Returning Officer in local elections;
(d) chair Statutory Boards and Committees
(e) represent my country in various regional and international fora, thus meeting and interacting with people from different walks of life, including Heads of Government, top professionals, diplomats, artists, ordinary men and women from whom I have drawn inspiration.
May I pause to recall a memorable event at one of the international meetings. At a conference on the impact of the hole on the ozone layer organised by UNESCO in Harare in 1986, I listened to a presentation by an African lady on the tremendous job she was doing to encourage the African population, especially women in rural areas to plant as many trees as possible. I was so impressed by her utter determination and commitment that after the presentation, I congratulated her with the following words "Madam, I wish there were more people like you in Africa". I could not imagine at that time that I was speaking to someone who would become the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. She is Mrs Wangari Maathai, presently Kenya's Deputy Minister of the Environment. The lesson to remember is that hard work whether in the Public Service, Private Sector or NGO's is always recognised, however long it may take.
The Mauritius Public Service does not stand on its own. We network with a lot of partners, e.g. Commonwealth, UN Agencies, Francophonie, AU and SADC. We have to nurture this partnership, particularly in the context of reforms in the African Public Services to support NEPAD projects and the principle of Good Governance.
Let me briefly make a few observations on the challenges ahead -
1. The Mauritius Public Service has been closely linked with the overall development of the country, especially with the major reforms in sectors like Health, Education, Agriculture and Civil Service. Poor economic performance at national level means less resources for Public Service and when the Public Service has inadequate resources the population is bound to suffer. It is in the interest of the country that all Public Officers should work with the greatest dedication and in tandem with other sectors to achieve economic growth.
2. The procedures in our Public Service are constantly being revamped. Old Regulations (the famous GOEs) have been reviewed and replaced by new ones, taking into consideration the realities of a modern Public Service. However, we are till struggling with an important facet of the reporting system. The Confidential Report of the colonial era is still in use. Attempts to adopt a new Performance Management system are yet to be materialised. Some measures take longer than others to be implemented but we should strive with renewed energy to develop and instil the the culture of change.
3. The principle of staff rotation stimulates Public Officers to remain constantly alert on the learning journey. It is difficult to imagine a Permanent Secretary moving from the Ministry of Education to the Ministry of Health and being expected to deliver the next day without going through the learning process. Mobility of staff can do good if the frequency is properly determined. Otherwise too frequent staff movements may cause instability and in some cases cause delay in implementation. I can mention my own case where I spent only nine months as the head of a huge Ministry like Transport and Shipping.
4. The Public Service should ensure that it has the best brains in all its departments. It should promote a national training culture and life-long learning. However, there should be a fair manpower balance in both the Private Sector and the Public Sector. A weak Public Service vis-à-vis a strong Private Sector or vice versa is not in the interests of the nation. Ideally, the two sectors should for the good running of the economy be manned by persons of top calibre. The strength of both sectors and regular consultations constitute the best recipe for a sound economic growth. I was fortunate to act for a number of years as the Secretary of meetings between the Government Ministers and top brass of the Private Sector under the Chairmanship of the Prime Minister.
5. The Public Service must be like an open book. It is subject to scrutiny by local and international institutions. In Africa, the African Peer Review Mechanism is presently assessing a first batch of five countries, including Mauritius, in the field of good governance. The Public Service constitutes an important component of the assessment and we should be ready to show that we have adopted the best management practices. For its part, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs has catalogued an Africa Governance Inventory. Furthermore, Transparency International publishes every year a report on the performance of all countries forming part of the UN system. This year's report which has just been published places three Commonwealth countries, namely New Zealand, Singapore and Australia among the ten best nations which have reached the highest standards in good governance, including the fight against fraud and corruption at all levels. The Commonwealth has an enormous potential to lead all its members in this direction.
6. The Public Service has no choice but to reinvent itself. It cannot be business as usual. The fast changing world and a globalised economy bring along a host of opportunities and also a painful dose of uncertainties. Terrorism, corruption, good governance and transparency are issues which today occupy the centrestage. These preoccupations along with the reform programmes were discussed in depth this year at two meetings of African Ministers of Public Service in Kampala in January and in Johannesburg in early October. African Ministers agreed that leadership was essential to get any reform programme through. They decided to give priority attention to the mounting of training programmes at different levels, starting with Ministers, politicians and senior officers and running down the line.
I should like to end by quoting from a song by a famous French actor, Jean Gabin. At the end of his rich film career, he chose to record one song. The song reflects the life of a young man who grows up, bragging he knows almost everything. He keeps saying "je sais, je sais" (I know). Then when he becomes older and eventually a grandfather he realises he in fact knows very little and how much he is ignorant of the world around him. He ends his song by humbly accepting "Je ne sais pas" (I don't know). I think we all would like to support Jean Gabin's quest for continued learning whatever be our age and status, but I believe I should give the last word to Albert Einstein who proclaimed and rightly so that "Imagination is more powerful than knowledge".