Making Government work

Making Government work

By Yellow Bucket
Tuesday 12/03/2024

YB noted with interest comments this week by Parmesh Chand as Permanent Secretary for Public Service recognising that Fiji Civil Servants have a deep-seated problem with making decisions.

Now in fairness, Civil Servants around the world are notorious for dodging tough calls usually actively backed by their political masters but it would seem Fiji has a particular bad case of the ‘duck and weave’ disease.

In fact, one particularly well-connected person suggested to YB the other day that inaction i.e. failure to spend, by the Civil Service has resulted in a decline in our national debt position to 75% of GDP. That may seem like good news but not spending budgeted funds, particularly on infrastructure, is the cause of many of our national woes like getting water through our taps.

The issue isn’t new. Government after Government have struggled with this unable to meet targets when it comes to capital or more specifically infrastructural investment. What’s the problem? Well, where do we begin. For a start, this type of spending requires planning, development, and lots of fiddly bits. In short it takes time and requires lots of decision making. This is where we fall apart because over the period of the previous Government, Fiji has become a “top down” nation with all decision making, particularly relating to spending, tied firmly to the Ministry of Finance.

Now you might ask what is the problem with that …. Well normally in Government as with most private organisations, Finance sets a budget that outlines spending plans for the year and then it is up to management i.e. the various Ministries to go out and spend that money. No problems as long as you stick to the plan except that is not the way it works. Under the previous administration any significant spending needed to be approved AGAIN by “you know who.” This resulted in a much of it never actually happening, the results of which we see around us today.

During the elections the Rabuka Coalition Government made a lot of noise about “decoupling” this spending from the Ministry of Finance, but old habits are hard to break and “control” equals power and that is always a temptation. A feature of this is the fact that a lot of budget approved spending decisions are still required to go back to Cabinet before being actioned. This culture of distrust isn’t unusual in Fiji and is visible in many private sector organisations (just go to any hardware store to see it in action). This in turn reflects weak systems that cannot be relied on to hold decision makers, at all levels, to account.

For example, you would think once the politicians have signed off on a budget then it would be up to the Civil Servants to implement it. Funds spent are then measured in the usual way via standard accounting policies i.e. public tendering processes or a three-quotation rule. Any abuse of the system can result in prosecution but we shouldn’t assume that abuse is inevitable requiring check after double check slowing up delivery.

Yes, by freeing up the decision-making process you run a risk of corruption and incompetence, but these can be managed. Don’t paralyse Government by assuming everyone is a crook when in reality only a small percentage may be tempted to go to the dark side.

Change is always difficult, even when we know it is good for us, and so it is no surprise that Civil Servants and their political masters are reluctant to give up old habits. One of the favourite fends seems to be “oh that requires a change of legislation” when in fact all it needs is a change of policy. This confusion, policy versus legislation, is understandable considering the last 16 years of constant legislative change. Just look at the prescriptive nature of our constitution that

goes into excessive detail on issues that are now locked in for eternity because the constitution in turn is impossible to change, another example of this culture of distrust.

Of course, underlying all this is the fact that the Civil Service has been stripped of talent and experience and so it is understandable that those higher up maybe reluctant to hand the power to make decisions down the chain.

This all suggests that the challenge facing Mr Chand and the Civil Service is a lot more complex than just training and there are various initiatives underway to try and get things moving but it starts with shifting the culture of distrust to one of trust in the system. That in turn requires transparency and public accountability that requires functioning rule of law ...... Oh dear, we are back to square one and our favourite topic. Sadly, YB hears any leadership changes in this area are unlikely with the PM a bit risk averse post the Radrodro and Tabuya dramas.

However, there is some good news with the Cabinet announcement that they would seek a ruling from the High Court on the subject of whether certain constitutional officers are barred from office following pleading guilty to various charges of legal misconduct. YB understands this was suggested by the Fiji Law Society to avoid them being forced to take the matter to court themselves. It is interesting that Government has agreed to seeking a general ruling. YB believes that initially they wanted to restrict it to the Vosarogo case.

AND finally, a year later Judges have been sworn in to form a Judicial Tribunal to investigate allegations against Director of Public Prosecutions Christopher Pryde. So…. Some progress!

Now to highlight a couple of recent developments in other areas of Government. The appointment of Ratu Viliame Seruvakula as Chair of the Great Council of Chiefs is a positive sign that the institution is ready to move forward in a new direction. Col Ratu Viliame is a former commander of the third Fiji Infantry Regiment, effectively the core of the Fiji military, and well respected for his role in leading the rapid recapture of Queen Elizabeth Barracks after the mutiny in 2000. He subsequently retired and served overseas in various leadership roles.

He faces a major challenge in restoring the credibility of the GCC in the eyes of the public and also within the itaukei population it is meant to represent. The Prime Minister’s call for the GCC to serve all the citizens of Fiji was welcomed by many and it adds further pressure for change.

Finally, YB noted the Commander’s recognition at a recent church service at QEB, of the need for the military to face trauma experienced within its ranks and the damage caused in the past by the RFMF to the wider community. Powerful words from a man who has revealed in the past his personal trauma resulting from being held hostage during the mutiny in 2000.

This follows a well-publicised meeting with Assistant Minister Sashi Kiran who has been tasked by the Prime Minister, who we understand regards this as a priority, to work on establishing a Truth and Reconciliation process. We await details but the endorsement of this initiative by the Commander is an important step forward towards what inevitably will be a difficult but long overdue healing process.

For more Yellow Bucket opinion pieces click: HERE

Opinion Note

Long time fijivillage users may remember the Yellow Bucket opinion column that ran in the years leading up to the 2006 coup. Well following the repeal of the MIDA Act we are delighted to announce that YB is back!

The Yellow Bucket is something of a Communications Fiji Ltd institution…. Yes it exists…. A real Yellow Bucket that the CFL team and visitors gather around after work to drink grog and discuss the day. Legend has it that every Fiji Prime Minister has at some stage enjoyed a bilo from the bucket.

The YB column ran from 2003 to early 2007 when it was shut down under extreme pressure from the military government. Later the MIDA Act specifically forbade any use of nom de plums or pseudonyms requiring every published article to have a named author.

So why the pseudonym. The YB column was and will continue to be a product of group thinking and discussion, so it would be impossible and a little unfair to attribute it to a single author.

It will continue to provide fact-based opinion offering context to the complex and constantly unfolding story, that is our home Fiji. We stress, FACT BASED…. No rush to judgement here ….. Our aim will be to run weekly but that could change depending on the situation.

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