Cushy job or cushion

Civil servants are expected to serve the government of the day in implementing its policies, but to do so in full respect of citizens’ rights.

President Myriam Spiteri Debono recently told a gathering at the Public Service awards ceremony that “public service officers must have the courage to call a stop if they believe that chosen or proposed paths are not in the national interest.” She added that the Public Service was one of the guardians of good governance and that “serving the people and the state is not always easy, particularly in certain tasks faced by senior public service officers.”


As is usual with any President’s remarks, one never knows whether they are fortuitous or are a diplomatic way of giving her own opinion on a matter of public interest. Some chose to see it in the latter way, coming in the wake a few weeks earlier of the Prime Minister’s claim that certain public officers appeared to have a “cushy job”. On the other hand, she could equally have been reminding them of their calling. It could well have been an ambiguous way of saying that some of them are villains and others heros.

President Myriam Spiteri Debono addressing the 2024 Public Service Awards. Photo: DOI.


The President repeated the established mantra that Public Service officers must be firm, impartial, and non-partisan. They can only accomplish and fulfil their obligations towards the State and the people if, in the performance of their duties, they are guided by good judgment and caution. She emphasised that the Public Service is the backbone of democratic leadership, one of the guardians of good governance. “That is why public officers must be honest, principled, and above all loyal to the country and to the people,” she added. 

The role of the civil service

The role of the civil service in any democratic and well-governed country is to translate political ideals into reality, whether they are of the left, the right, or the centre right or left. This is precisely because any good civil service is apolitical.


From time to time, governments in some countries have claimed that civil servants are either working to thwart ministers’ plans or are complacent and ineffective, and that therefore it is perfectly justifiable to make political appointments. Occasionally, the complaint has been made in Malta too, leading to an outcry that democracy is under threat. Naturally, there’s no mention that this is the model in France and the US, for example.


However, in general we follow the UK model, where our governments are generally happy that the civil service is impartial and agree that the benefits are self-evident. Mind you, there is no divine right for an impartial civil service to continue to exist; it does so at the discretion of ministers and so rightly needs to prove itself to successive governments.


Moreover, impartiality is not the same as independence, as some critics have recently alleged in the context of the hospitals deal. The civil service is not an alternative source of power because, ultimately, it is part of the government. No civil servant can stop a deal from happening, whatever the critics have said, and nor should they. At most, they can refuse to work on the deal or may ask for a ministerial direction in writing. In extreme cases, there is nothing to stop a civil servant from requesting a re-assignment or even from resigning.


Civil servants are expected to serve the government of the day in implementing its policies, but to do so in full respect of citizens’ rights. They rely on the great traditions of public administration that encompasses competence, integrity, impartiality, independence, and discretion. It is therefore incumbent on them to adhere to the highest standards of conduct: honesty, truthfulness, and incorruptibility.


While civil servants have a right to their personal views, they do not have the freedom of private persons to take sides or to express their convictions publicly on controversial matters. To the extent they do, personal views have to be expressed only with tact and discretion. Any attempt to politicise the Civil Service is utterly condemnable.

Accountability

Yet, civil servants at all levels are accountable and answerable for all actions carried out, as well as decisions taken, and commitments made by them in performing their functions. They need to act as what one might call an auxiliary constitutional and ethical safeguard, to the extent that all officials (most of all permanent secretaries) are bound to uphold the law and safeguard the spending of public money.


I believe that the recent arraignment of three permanent secretaries concerning the hospitals deal raises many questions. I will not comment, as some judge-jury-executioner commentators have done ̶ the process of law must take its course. But what I will say is that, when the dust settles, it might be time for an independent commission to address the issues of civil service responsibilities, accountability, and ethics.


These matters were also raised in the public consultation that took place in relation to the revision of the Constitution ̶ alas, a process that the two big political parties have quietly agreed to bury. During that consultation, various NGOs or individuals had proposed changes, including for example making ministers and civil servants personally liable for illegal or irregular contracts. At the time, such a proposal looked outrageous; with the benefit of hindsight, one might well ask whether, had such a provision existed, it would have had a deterrent effect.


Somebody might argue that we already have a Civil Service Commission and an extensive Public Administration Act. Both have failed, in one way or another. As far as the Commission is concerned, it needs to be strengthened and empowered to have a more interventionist approach. As for the rest, there is no doubt that more transparency about policy evidence and advice is required. It is just beyond the pale that we had civil servants in various ministries, agencies and authorities all involved in the hospital deal but none of them were able, or so they claim, to stop the rot.


One thing is for sure: most civil servants do not have a cushy job at all, though they might occasionally become a cushion for the government of the day.

Main photo: Luca Medici starring as Checco Zalone in ‘Quo Vado?’, a film about Italians’ obsession with securing a cushy job with maximum perks and minimal work (Medusa Film).

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