INTERVIEW: The radical reforms in Malta’s public service

A new publication entitled PUBLIC SERVICE REFORMS IN A SMALL ISLAND STATE – The Case of MALTA, was officially launched last month. The book, authored by academics Prof. Frank Bezzina, Dr. Emanuel Camilleri and Dr. Vincent Marmara’, gives an overview of the Maltese public service’s history, but focuses primarily on the many ramifications of the ambitious reform process undertaken within Malta’s public service from 2013 onwards. spoke to the head of Malta’s public service, Principal Permanent Secretary Mario Cutajar, under whose stewardship the reform process was begun and is proceeding, with regards to the publication, the reform process, the many changes that have been wrought, as well as the future of Malta’s public service.

“We had a clear vision in mind: services accessible to all, 24/7.”

In your foreword to the publication PUBLIC SERVICE REFORMS IN A SMALL ISLAND STATE – The Case of MALTA, you give a rather comprehensive overview of the sometimes-seismic reforms that have been carried out within Malta’s public sector over the last eight years. What, in your opinion, have been the major, landmark changes that have been brought about in the public service corporate culture during this time?

Reforms carried out within the public service were numerous in the past years, from those intended to change the way public services were rendered, to reforms focusing on quality within the public service.

We have put the citizen, our client, at the centre of all our operations and catered the services around their needs and preferences. Through the establishment of, we focused our efforts on how public services can be delivered seamlessly to those who need it, and no longer the other way round. To do so we had a clear vision in mind: services accessible to all, 24/7. In this context, we extended our departments to service hubs in the centre of communities, spread throughout the country. We invested heavily in e-government services, introduced various mobile applications, as well as the 153 freephone which answers thousands of calls every month.

Simultaneously, we focused on the element of quality within the Public Service, by providing a clear definition of what constitutes a quality service and how can it be measured. To this end we established the Institute for the Public Services, an essential structure that focused on improving the capabilities and the potential of public officers. We believe the continuous development of our officers also improves the quality of the service in itself.

All in all, the renewal process focused on quality and on client-centred services. The next step is the strengthening of the Public Service through a new 5-year strategy. The way forward will be based on quality, accountability and sustainability, by focusing on our three key elements: people, technology and the service in itself.

Excessive public sector bureaucracy has long been considered to be the scourge of most nations and their citizenry. What measures, if any, have been taken to simplify bureaucratic excesses? Have there been any significant changes to the general modus operandi of the public service in an effort, perhaps, to provide a more ‘human face’ to what could otherwise be deemed to be an anonymous and faceless ‘processing’ machine?

 We have simplified bureaucratic excesses to the extent that around 1,500 public services are now being offered under one roof, in 23 different localities. This is in addition to the digital services offered through e-government services such as e-forms. The citizen no longer needs to commute to Valletta and go from one department to another just to be served. That is a thing of the past.

“Never in its long history has the Public Service carried out so many reforms in such a short time.”

In the past we used to refer to the civil service, or “iċ-Ċivil”, a throwback, one assumes, to colonial days and the British model of public administration. Has there been a conscious decision to move away from the British template and all that this implies? Has it been a case of needing to “re-invent the wheel”? Is the ‘Estacode’ still the public service ‘bible’, or has that too been modified and updated?

We have the Public Service Management Code, which regulates the conduct of public officers. It is dynamic and constantly evolving, enhancing policies, practices and procedures, for instance with the inclusion of the Remote Working Policy as its latest update. Moreover, we simplified the PSMC in order to be accessible as much as possible to all the public officers.

The reform process is ongoing, and yet there have been a whole swathe of reforms and culture-shifts that have been implemented in what is, relatively, a short period of time. How has this process of constant change effected the public servant in the workplace, across the board, and at all levels?

One of the book’s key findings is that 55% of reforms in the public service were implemented between 2014 and 2017. Never in its long history has the Public Service carried out so many reforms in such a short time. I believe the public officer understands this need to change and the necessity of a forward-looking Public Service not only to adapt to the times, but also anticipate future challenges and turn them into opportunities. This constant change keeps status quo at bay, and keeps the public officer motivated.

“The Public Service was widely lauded as the only engine that kept operating when the rest of the country came to a standstill.”

What about Joe & Joan Citizen, the public that is being ‘served’? How has the reform process rendered life any easier whilst navigating the oftentimes murky waters of public service bureaucracy, rules and regulations and that which is possibly considered to be a ‘one size fits all’ approach?

As I said before, the citizen is at the centre of all our operations, no exceptions. We brought public services closer to home, where attention is given to each case on an individual basis, in all our hubs and also through Freephone 153. We keep looking forward to better serve the public, for instance through a call-back system: if an individual phones after office hours, our representatives will call the person back at the first possible instance.

Over the years there have been many opinions bandied about regarding the job-for-life aspect of public service employment. The same goes for promotion by seniority.  These, amongst others, are factors deemed by some to encourage if not promote institutional laziness or, even worse, serve as initiative-killers and de-motivators.  Moreover, the public service had a reputation, justified or otherwise, of being wholly and completely inflexible in most all matters. Is that still the case? How have the reforms addressed these issues, including the ‘rigidity’ of public service procedures?

The Public Service prides itself on being a model employer and undertakes various initiatives to motivate public officers. From the latest initiatives of Remote Working and the introduction of Remote Workspaces, to a comprehensive list of training courses that enhance the public officer’s potential.

Regarding the rigidity of the Public Service, let’s stick to factual information and take the current Coronavirus pandemic as a case-study. It took the world by storm and it was an unexpected reality test of unprecedented levels. In all this, the Public Service was widely lauded as the only engine that kept operating when the rest of the country came to a standstill. We provided factual information in a timely manner, we kept providing public services, and our front-liners risked their lives to save others. Is this what a ‘rigid’, ‘inflexible’ and ‘demotivated’ Public Service looks like? I can keep mentioning other examples but the truth is that the Public Service and its officers have proved themselves over and over again.

“While we were investing €200 million on technology, we also worked to open 23 community hubs…”

When it comes to the perception of the public service, my mind gravitates towards the classic comedy series Yes, Minister! – wherein the Civil Service head, Sir Humphrey Appleby, describes government administration as being similar to a vehicle of sorts, “with the engine of a lawnmower and the brakes of a Rolls Royce”. Do you think that this kind of perception still exists as far as Malta’s public service is concerned? Do you survey customer satisfaction and public perception? Has this improved or changed significantly over these past eight years?

The latest Eurobarometer statistics show how an impressive 72% of the Maltese Population is satisfied with the public services being provided. It is noteworthy to underline that the same survey puts the European average at 46%. It is a very good result but we will not be appeased by that alone. Rather, it makes us more determined to continue strengthening this positive outlook.

The reforms carried out to date are many and varied. But how do you go about gauging the effectiveness or success of these measures, internally and externally?

After years of renewal in the Public Service, 2020 was the year of consolidation. We analysed the effectiveness or success of the reforms carried out, immediately. That shows a courageous and determined Public Service, unafraid to learn from its own mistakes. In the past, previous administrations attempted to carry out reforms only to analyse them more than two decades later. We opted to act in a different, more decisive and more effective way. That is exactly what the Maltese academics reviewed in the book published recently, which will serve as a basis to the upcoming strengthening process. The Public Service will keep on being ambitious and forward-looking. 

Plenty of emphasis has been and continues to be placed on the further digitization of services – signs of the times, of course. Yet there still exists a significant digital divide within the public at large. Are we heading towards an almost exclusively digital public service, at some point, or will the human-contact aspect always remain a necessity? How does the public service accommodate those who are computer illiterate or those who refuse to trust anything IT-based?

We are living in a digital world and having a strong digital presence is a necessity. However, we also believe that no one should be left behind. Indeed, while we were investing €200 million on technology, we also worked to open 23 community hubs for those who are IT illiterate or prefer individual assistance. For instance, when vaccine certificates were introduced, they were digital and had to be downloaded; our hubs provided free assistance to those who were unable to download and print. This is just one minor example.

“Our next goal: providing a service of excellence through a new 5-year strategy for the Public Service.”

The COVID pandemic has presented an endless number of challenges to all sectors of society, the world over, Malta’s public service being no exception. One of the measures taken to help combat the spread of the virus was the teleworking option…A rather considerable culture-shift and something that would have appeared unthinkable a few years ago. How has teleworking helped or hindered the public service’s operations during this time? Has the public been affected by this measure? Is it a facility that will be extended beyond the duration of the pandemic?

We truly believe in the benefits of remote working, by conviction. In 2019, long before the COVID pandemic struck, we were already undertaking a pilot project in this regard. As a result, we were not inspired by COVID-19, but took note of the lessons learnt. In a way, COVID contributed to our pilot project experience. After analysing every detail, last July we announced the first Remote Working policy which entered into force this October. This policy will go beyond teleworking, offering greater flexibility to the public officer. It is a first for our country and further enhances the Public Service as a model employer and a leading catalyst for change in Malta.

I get the feeling that the role of the public service at large has been greatly underestimated during the pandemic. In many areas of daily life, public servants have been indispensable towards maintaining ‘normality’ and especially crucial in the public health and safety sectors. How has the public service, as a whole, been impacted by the pandemic, and how has it reacted, in turn? Has the reform process carried on notwithstanding or has it been put on hold?

The pandemic showcased a flexible Public Service. Overnight, public officers shifted the way how they usually work, started working from home, and public services continued to be provided. Despite the challenging times, no one complained of a service or assistance that was not given. This was also the result of the renewal process implemented at a fast pace since 2013.

“Today Public Sector employment stands at 22%, 5 percentage points lower than the 27% in 2012”.

Returning to the launch of the book, PUBLIC SERVICE REFORMS IN A SMALL ISLAND STATE – The Case of MALTA…What prompted its publication? Does it mean, in any way, that the reform process within the public service has been completed and that it is now a closed chapter? Where to from here on in, if anywhere?

The book is the result of a comprehensive study by Maltese academics who analysed the change brought forward, particularly in recent years. An international publishing house opted to publish this study as a case-study for public service reforms in small island states. Nonetheless it does not signal the end of the story, but rather serves as a good base on our next goal: providing a service of excellence through a new 5-year strategy for the Public Service.

On a final note, seeing as though it appears to be a ‘flavour of the month’ topic… Recent claims have been made regarding the public service becoming, once again, a pre-electoral employment facility, especially for lower-grade and/or unskilled jobs.  Is there any truth in that claim? How do present levels of public service employment compare to similar pre-electoral periods in the past?

These are blanket statements that occasionally resurface in certain sections of the media, but there is no truth in such claims. The truth remains that today, Public Sector employment from the total of the gainfully occupied stands at 22%, which is 5% points lower than the 27% in 2012. Statistics that speak for themselves.

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Marie Benoit
Marie Benoit
2 years ago

An excellent interview full of useful information. I am impressed to read how the civil service as we have known it has changed for the better.