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Reinventing government

The phrase “reinventing government” comes from a popular book published in 1992 that argues that systems of governance can be fundamentally re-oriented to function as efficiently and productively as the best-run private sector businesses. In Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector, David Osborne and Ted Gaebler suggest that governments should: 1) steer, not row – “it is not government’s obligation to provide services, but to see that they’re provided”; 2) empower communities to solve their own problems rather than simply deliver services; 3) encourage competition rather than monopolies; 4) be driven by missions, rather than rules; 5) be results-oriented by funding outcomes rather than inputs; 6) meet the needs of the customer, not the bureaucracy; 7) concentrate on earning money rather than spending it; 8) invest in preventing problems rather than curing crises; 9) decentralise authority;

The solution to resolve an ailing public administration should not be to send ministers on the front line to fire fight and manage operations

Albeit not original ideas, these nine governing principles inspired the rise of the “reinvention movement” which also hit our shores.

The experts of public administration will recall various initiatives adopted by different governments in Malta addressing such ideas but probably all would agree that key on this front was the setting up of the Management Systems Unit (MSU).

Established as a government agency in the early 1990s, the MSU was tasked to restructure the public service in Malta, however it itself became the victim of countless restructuring initiatives to appease partisan political pressures.

A snapshot of today’s public administration leads to my belief that the reinventing movement in Malta has been a failure. This does not mean that it did not produce many useful reforms, however. Here is a macro review of the facts.

Malta’s public deficit over the whole of 2012 exceeded the magic three per cent of GDP, placing the country’s public finances once again at risk of incurring action under Brussels’ excessive deficit procedure.

Malta has “significantly deviated” from its binding renewable energy targets, according to the European Commission’s latest Renewable Energy Progress Report.

The results of a pan-European scoreboard on the efficiency of justice concluded that Malta has the least efficient judicial system in the EU when it comes to the duration of cases.

Education and health systems in Malta require increased investments to remain sustainable.

Electricity prices per Kwh paid by businesses operating in Malta exceed those paid in all other member states. Although this shortcoming has direct implications on the aggregate overheads of the total economy of Malta, this negative effect is more pronounced for activities requiring higher extents of electricity generation, a case in point being the hospitality industry.

The Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association (MHRA) has been vociferous about the fact that the hotel industry is facing financial sustainability challenges.

This situation did not happen overnight or just as a result of an international economic crisis.

Rather, this represents the cumulative effect of various issues most of which have been highlighted by the MHRA over the past years but were left untreated.

The new Labour Government has promised to reduce bureaucracy by 25 per cent. It has said that “measures to reduce bureaucracy are sector specific” and “members of staff, management and directors already have ideas they want us to implement”. MHRA looks forward to discussing these ‘ideas’ as it believes that reinventing government implies a cross-national movement.

More specifically, on various occasions the MHRA has called upon the Government to ensure the purpose of re-organisation is to achieve good management. Good management across the public service and public agencies means good news to the private sector and good news to the economy.

A better managed government will only result from systematic efforts to re-engineer public service processes and from the merging of bureaucracies. A lean government structure will be more responsive to and ready to find solutions for the benefit of our economy.

Beyond any rhetoric related to pre-electoral slogans, the Government needs to ensure it has professionals fit for the purpose at the helm of our public institutions – and this principle must apply for both political and non political appointments. Any potential marketing and rebranding exercises of departments and organisations across our public administration will be futile if not complemented by strategies aimed at resourcing them with the best brains around.

Great leaps of efficiency may be achieved through increased productivity yet leaner government structures. As Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat now has the challenging task of translating the pre-electoral words into deeds.

Probably the significant issue underlying the size of the new Cabinet is not that there aren’t enough office spaces in the new parliament building to host it, but rather it is the effort required to keep all involved aligned with the principles of the re-inventing government movement.

Also, certain appointments in key positions might have sent the wrong message, and the removal of so many permanent secretaries at one go as one of the earliest actions of the new Government will definitely leave its negative mark on the need for continuity.

And no, the solution to resolve an ailing public administration should not be to send ministers and parliamentary secretaries on the front line to fire fight and manage operations. Rather it is important that the Cabinet politicians are willing and competent enough to stick to their role in a modern government structure.

MHRA is confident that the tourism industry will keep growing. However, the Government must create the right economic environment and sustain it through efficient public structures.

Reinventing government means that suggestions and constructive criticism posed by non-partisan social partners should be favourably encouraged and acted upon by the public administration – because this is pure feedback from the front line of the economy; where the heart of society and its wellbeing beats.

Why? Because this is how a modern government should work to keep a democracy alive.

Tony Zahra is president of the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association.

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