Public institutions : how to revamp the trust?

Par Jameela Jaddoo O commentaire
Peaople Walking

Main proposals: remove political interferences, appoint competent people as leaders and apply meritocracy. The survey carried out by Straconsult for Afrobarometer recently revealed that Mauritians are showing a decline in trust in the main public institutions. Why so and how can we revamp that trust?

According to different stakeholders, this alarming situation is due to political interferences and the fact that many institutions are run by people who are less transparent and less capable than before. They believe that in order to revive trust in our institutions, there is the need to remove political interferences, appoint competent people as leaders and apply meritocracy.

Afrobarometer is a pan-African, non-partisan research network that conducts public attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic conditions, and related issues in African countries. The recently published survey reveals that in 2014, 59% Mauritians trusted the Police compared to only 50% in 2017. Most surprisingly, the Courts of Law have known a significant decline with only 51% of trust in 2017 compared to 72% in 2014. Other institutions, namely the Special Mobile Force and the religious leaders have earned under 55% of trust. However, public hospitals have gained 62% of trust in 2017.

“We find that 69% of the respondents “agree” or “agree very strongly” that (quote) it is more important for citizens to be able to hold government accountable, even at the cost of slower decision-making, than it is to have a government that can get things done without citizen influence. We are in the era of information and the buzz word is ‘Good Governance’ which goes hand in hand with accountability. But in Mauritius, we don’t have, yet, a Freedom of Information or Right to Information Act, not an efficient Declaration of Assets Act, no Financing of Political Parties or Politicians Act but we have discretionary powers for Ministers to appoint the person of their choice at the Head of Institutions,” utters the Executive Director of Transparency Mauritius.

Rajen Bablee

According to Rajen Bablee, this goes against the electoral promise of a change of culture to promote meritocracy and transparency. “Many of our political leaders were born before the time of television in Mauritius and some of them are still stuck with an image of a by-gone era where leaders looked more like an Alpha male rather than an empathic one. On top of that, we live in a small place where the slightest rustle is amplified into political storms where often, intellectual dishonesty takes the upper hand over empirical assessments. Furthermore many Mauritians benchmark their appreciation of the Government of the day against what they imagine to be best practices in European countries,” he says.

He utters that politicians should realise that the paradigm is changing. “Shouldn't we have training for politicians? It is quite disturbing to realise that someone who does not have a clue about managing a small company or who is unaware of the fiduciary duties of a director or who has no idea about human resources or good governance, can suddenly leapfrog into a Government and there, he/she suddenly has, under his orders, thousands of public officers who will execute his/her vision. Now these untrained persons would appoint, in their own deliberate judgement, people to head institutions and take decisions which would affect our lives. Saying it like that may seem farcical but it is a disturbing truth,” he argues.

Rajen Bablee strongly believes that we must educate the people in the first place. “When we have some “Squealers” who drive people to bow in front of political leaders and applaud their every action, it becomes urgent to educate the population about their role in a democracy. They have the right to know. They have the right to participate in the decision making process. In a democracy, the role of the Government is to cater for the well-being of everybody and not for a few followers only.”

He adds that the well-being of the people can be achieved by having the most capable professionals in every area of society. “It is not about friends, relatives or others which would erase the abuses of their leaders. Trust can only come back when politicians know their limits and that Heads of Institutions are aware of their power. This situation can only become true when meritocracy is applied,” points out Rajen Bablee.

Dr. Dan Maraye : “Our institutions need to be led by people of high integrity”

Dan Maraye, former governor of the Bank of Mauritius, believes that the erosion of trust in our institutions has been a long term process. “The decadence started after the general elections of June 1982.The then new 60-0 government amended the constitution to selectively make highly efficient and responsible government officials vacate their posts. Had the amendments been applied universally to any particular category of public officials, the damage could have been lesser. These officials were replaced by less capable persons who either have been identified as “their people” or simply ‘yes-men’.”

“All governments since 1982 have promoted such ‘malpractices’ leading to the state we are in today.  The poor quality of chairpersons and board directors kept declining drastically thereby eroding further trust in our institutions,” he explains. Dan Maraye provides the example of the former director of the Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) Jean Roland Delaitre in 1982. “Since then we have not had any one up to his calibre.” The list can be exhaustive. However Dan Maraye states that there have been a few very good politically appointed people in some institutions.

The declining quality of politicians over the years has also contributed to the lack of trust in our institutions, I mean both in government and in the opposition generally, states Mr. Maraye. It is unfortunate that most politicians, today, have lost credibility by their behaviour, which in most cases, has been the opposite of what they preach.

The former governor is also of the opinion that the decline in trust is due to the interference of politics and politicians in our institutions. How to reverse the declining trend in trust? Our institutions need to be led by people of high integrity who can dissociate party politics and responsible management. In short, we need people who believe in transparency and accountability, that is the basic principles of good governance.

Moreover, the long awaited freedom of information act will certainly enhance the credibility of our institutions. Mr. Maraye proposes that we need to have a high level panel to select board members, chairpersons, amongst others. Since former presidents and vice-presidents of our Republic and former chief justices and judges benefit from generous lifetime privileges from government coffers, they could be requested to form part of a ‘Comité de Sages’ to select board members and chairpersons of our institutions.

 Dr. Roukaya Kasenally : “Effective institutions depend on their ability to be independent, free from any political interference and headed by competent people”

Democracy scholar, senior lecturer and co-founder of Mauritius Society Renewal, Dr Roukaya Kasenally agrees that indeed Round 7 of the Afrobarometer shows a significant decline across the board in terms of trust (when compared to Round 6) of most of the key public institutions. “This drop in trust is also visible among the political class. This is a matter of some concern, as institutions and those supposed to serve the citizens are facing an important trust deficit. In fact, this addresses an important question, the quantity versus the quality of institutions in Mauritius,” utters Dr Kasenally.

She explains that in many of the international and continental surveys such as Freedom House, the EIU’s Democracy Index or the Mo Ibrahim Governance Index, Mauritius ranks first across Africa and often its diversity of institutions is lauded as an achievement. “No doubt, one of the core features of a working democracy together with the rule of law, an effective state is the presence of institutions.”

However, she trusts “for institutions to be effective and trustworthy, they must be transparent, accountable, independent and run by able people.” Unfortunately, according to Dr. Kasenally, in the recent years, we have seen less and less of these in our institutions of which most are stuffed by nominees as a means of rewarding them for their political loyalty.

“As for the dwindling trust in leaders, I think we are facing an important crisis in leadership at all levels, as the same people are monopolising the political, economic and social spaces. We shall soon be celebrating 50 years of independence but little has changed, for example we have had only two families occupying the post of Prime Minister, leaders of political parties are glued to their seat and certain Members of Parliament have held a position in the legislature for three consecutive terms,” she argues.

For Dr. Kasenally, trust is built over time and requires commitment and investment from all parties. “Here, it is crucial that citizens are brought into the equation. For too long, citizens have essentially been seen as bystanders called upon /solicited and even cajoled at elections but conveniently forgotten once they are over. As mentioned earlier, effective institutions depend on their ability to be independent, free from any political interference and headed by competent people, who have been recruited through an open, competitive and merit based system,” she states.

Krish Ponnusamy : “Our leaders need to make valuable reforms”

For the former senior civil servant, the findings from the Afrobarometer survey are more than worrying. “The decline in trust is not only in one sector or one institution, but in many others. The decline is even seen with those who are at the top, such as the President, the National Assembly, the Prime Minister, religious leaders, among others. This gives the feeling that this has been going on the same trend for some time. But we have to know why Mauritians are reacting like this. Even though that the survey has been done with 1,200 persons, we have to give it due consideration and the findings do confirm pertinent implications,” utters Krish Ponnusamy. 

He explains that it is important to highlight that the index published by Ibrahim every two years has lastly placed Mauritius as the top country in Africa in terms of democracy. “However, the same country garners a completely different result with the survey done among Mauritians living on a daily basis in the island. It is dramatic but people react in regards to events taking place. Our institutions have always existed but what makes the difference are the men and women who are at the head of these institutions as well as the environment in which these function,” he states.

Krish Ponnusamy explains that the results of the findings would be completely different if the environment of these institutions would be a democratic one. How to revamp the trust? Krish Ponnusamy believes that the leaders of the country have to take the necessary actions.

“They urgently need to make valuable reforms, not cosmetic ones. Reforms should be based on the good governance practice. The idea should not only to create institutions and thereupon, the country will function better. There should be conditions and actions that satisfy people.” He adds that the leaders should not only look after their sectors but they should all work together to bring results.

The former civil servant is also of the opinion that those at the heads of the institutions should be competent people. “Those appointed at the head of these institutions have to be reliable, experienced, honest and elected on meritocracy basis. The Prime Minister has to take the bulls by the horns to shape up those reforms.”

 Hambyrajen Narsinghen : “The recruitment criteria are not well established or are confusing”

The Head of Faculty of Law at the University of Mauritius points out that the survey indicates that people have more trust in the judiciary, namely in the Courts of Law (as in the survey) than in institutions such as the police and the Public Service Commission. “For example, there was the Mackay report some ten years ago which suggested various recommendations for the judiciary system. Up to now, over 10 recommendations have been implemented and we note positive results following these. However, there are still things that need to be addressed at the judiciary level,” says Hambyrajen Narsinghen.

He believes that political nominees and people with political influences have also affected the trust people had in institutions. “For example among the members that comprise the Judicial and Legal Services Commission, we see that it is only the President of the Public Service Commission (PSC) who was politically nominated whereas the four others are independent and neutral from politicians. I thus believe that there is a more or less correct recruitment which is being done and we have seen some magistrates and others who are more or less independent,” he utters.

However Mr Narsinghen states that the recruitment in the public sector and in the Public Services Commission (PSC) “is catastrophic.” “Even in the composition of the members of the PSC, it is hard to see that there has been an objective recruitment. Even recruitments in our parastatal bodies are catastrophic. Promotions have always attracted critics but often the recruitment criteria are not well established or are confusing, such as in the police force for example.”

The Head of Faculty of Law at the University of Mauritius is of the opinion that the political nominees in our institutions are a necessary evil. “They can be politically nominated but they have to be people who have integrity and honesty. Professional integrity is very important. Quality, skills and competence must prevail. The nominations should also be done by a Parliamentary Committee and this committee should have a close look at the qualifications of the persons… Institutions like the Equal Opportunity Commission are a toothless bulldog.

There are many shortcomings in our laws and proper actions cannot thus be taken,” states Mr Narsinghen. He adds that it is high time to reflect on how to make our institutions become transparent and how to reboot the trust.

Afrobarometer Survey : most Mauritians see corruption in state institutions

The second part of the findings of the Afrobarometer Survey carried out by Straconsult was released on Thursday. This Press Release is about Perceived Corruption among public sector officials. The survey shows that six in 10 Mauritians (61%) say that corruption has increased over the past year.

“An overwhelming majority of Mauritians believe that at least some government officials, police, National Assembly members, local councils, and Prime Minister Staff are involved in corruption. A considerable number of Mauritians say ordinary citizens risk retaliation if they report corruption.” 

Key findings:

  • More than eight in 10 Mauritians say that “some,” “most,” or “all” police (86%) and government officials (82%) are involved in corruption. More than three fourths say the same about the National Assembly (80%), local municipal/district councils (79%), and the prime minister and his office (77%).
  • Six in 10 citizens (61%) feel that corruption has increased in Mauritius over the past year, an improvement from 2014 (69%)
  • Only about half (47%) of respondents believe that ordinary people can make a difference in the fight against corruption, and two-thirds (67%) say that ordinary people risk retaliation or other negative consequences if they report corruption to the authorities.
  • More than six in 10 Mauritians say it is “somewhat” or “very” likely that a wealthy person could pay a bribe or use personal connections to avoid paying taxes (66%), avoid going to court (62%), or register land that doesn’t belong to him (61%).