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The power of incumbency

Most democracies are characterised by the use of the power of incumbency, directly or indirectly, by elected politicians and their trusted public servants. Using elected office for political gain is, therefore, a reality that this country, like many other democracies, have experienced for several decades.

Directing funds and favours to projects and individuals who have the clout to make a difference in who gets elected to Parliament is a worrying reality that no political party is prepared to address. ‘Managing’ information about such practices is one of the ways of deflecting the attention of the public from such abuse of the money they pay in taxation.

When this newspaper asked Principal Permanent Secretary Mario Cutajar about the number of people on a definite work contract in the public sector whose engagement became indefinite just before the last election, he refused to provide such information.

In typical Sir Humphrey Appleby jargon he said that “according to the law, the document requested is not held by the public authority [his office]. The person dealing with the request has no grounds for believing that the document is held by, or connected more closely with the functions of, another public authority”. If it were not such a serious matter of enquiring on how taxpayers’ money is being used, it would attract a smile from whoever was trying to understand what Mr Cutajar was saying.

Many human resources experts argue that the public service recruitment process is at best opaque and at worst malleable enough to allow top civil servants to tweak it in critical times to curry favour with the electorate just before an election.

In a ‘right of reply’, the Director of Information justified the action of the Principal Permanent Secretary to convert some definite work contracts in the public service to indefinite ones just before the last election. He argued that previous administrations had resorted to similar tactics in the past and noted that Mr Cutajar was only trying to address the discriminatory way in which this matter had been handled.

Malta has one of the highest per capita ratio of civil servants in Europe. While pay conditions are not among the best in the local labour market, the public service still attracts some applicants usually with low or no qualifications for jobs that often require a low-skills level.

It also draws more qualified, politically well-connected individuals who see a post in the civil service as the first stepping stone to a professional career.

What the public needs to know is how productivity in the civil service is improving or deteriorating and whether the services the public expects from the government are being delivered efficiently and effectively. While it is evident that specific areas in the civil service are under immense pressure, especially in the health, law and order and educational systems, many rightly fret about the endemic underemployment and overmanning in less crucial areas.

If the political parties want to improve the quality of the democratic system of government, they should commission an independent task force to define the process of public service recruitment in a way that checks the abuse of the power of incumbency.

A good start would be full disclosure of non-personal information on recruitment exercises.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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