His appointment after the election in March was mired in controversy but principal permanent secretary Mario Cutajar, a former Labour activist, tells Kurt Sansone that his beliefs and his job never meet.
You spoke of the need to have a culture change in the public service. What is wrong with it?
The public service looks inward rather than outward. It seeks to preserve the system as it is rather than cater for clients’ needs. Clients are not only external users of the services but also the employees themselves. For example, the clients of the payroll section are employees.
Changing the culture to become client-focused requires a mentality change and it is not easy because the public sector represents the apex of traditionalism.
It is a traditional culture grounded in regulations, discipline, supervision and where delegating work is almost unheard of.
There are various reasons why the public service is like this and probably these are the same as those faced by large, deep-rooted companies.
On the other hand, at companies in the services sector where the environment is very competitive, the culture encourages fresh ideas and constant change. The public service has nothing of this.
Because it has no competition and is often the regulator. There is also a deep-seated tradition where communication is problematic.
Contact between decision-makers and those who execute the work is very rare... there is distance between managers and frontline people.
To tackle these issues communication has to be improved and it cannot be the traditional top-down approach.
Experience shows us that many good ideas come from frontline people... it is in their interest to give you solutions because they are the ones to suffer the brunt of complaints when clients are miffed.
People may complain that rules are applied rigidly but the fear is that a looser arrangement that does not valorise regulations can lead to a system where anything goes.
Not at all. Simplifying bureaucracy does not mean we will remove it.
Bureaucracy cannot be removed because it gives permanence. It ensures decisions are implemented and recorded.
Excess bureaucracy is when people have to fit into the system rather than the other way round.
Simplification does not mean eliminating accountability. On the contrary, today there is no accountability.
Is lack of accountability a result of political interference that stifles initiative and prevents managers from taking decisions?
It is not necessarily so because lack of initiative may be a result of poor communication and failure to appreciate the ideas coming from the front liners.
It may be a question of attitude, where anything goes.
The Government has an ambitious pledge to cut red tape by 25 per cent. How will this be measured?
Key performance indicators will be used to measure progress.
The first step is to have a vision and then set key objectives to implement it.
A serious objective has to be attainable and measurable. In management, everything can be measured.
The Management Efficiency Unit in the Office of the Prime Minister has been assigned to work along each ministry to examine existing processes with a view to simplify them, determine the adequate structures required to carry out change and identify the number of people required to do so.
I do not believe I am a political appointee but I do believe there were political processes in the past that held me back from advancing in my career
Most of the terrain that has to be covered to reach the final objective involves education and for this reason the MEU has teamed up with the civil service training centre and the University of Malta to provide training.
The public service has its hands tied by rigid pay grades that prevent it from recruiting the right people with the right wage. The private sector may also entice good people to leave the public service by offering better wages. Is this a problem?
It is a problem that can be solved. Over the years we have adopted a mixed system that sees people from outside the public service working alongside civil servants.
But you are reasoning in a traditional way that believes people are motivated only by money. The modern human resources approach speaks of job satisfaction beyond monetary compensation.
I derive satisfaction from knowing that my work has contributed to changing things for the better.
I was never showered with money throughout my long career with the public service but knowing that I contributed to change things gave me satisfaction.
Job satisfaction increases employee morale and job satisfaction is derived by delegating work and giving the person space to achieve the desired goals.
Cutting bureaucracy will require changing work practices. Will unions play ball if, for example, you decide to stop summer half days, which have often been criticised by the private sector?
Do you see businesses trying to seek services from Government departments at 2pm in August?
You don’t think it is a problem?
No. A working day is eight hours long and in summer public sector employees work six hours. If anybody wants to seek a service, offices are open until 1.30pm.
But whenever we felt a service required the presence of skeleton staff in the afternoons or necessitated the creation of a shift system, public sector employees did adapt. Hospital workers do not work half days; nor do Enemalta employees. Not everybody works half days. On the contrary, there are thousands in the public sector who do not have them.
Will you find the unions behind you?
I have no problem with them and I have always found the unions prepared to meet around a table.
We must not be holier than the Pope. You have to work with capable people whom you can trust
Is your former membership of the General Workers’ Union a hindrance for some?
No, because I have a trade union background irrespective of my previous link with the GWU.
The Union Ħaddiema Magħqudin, the Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses and others feel comfortable talking to me as much as the GWU does. We can understand each other and we can almost anticipate what the other will say.
With a trade union background, you know that unions will come forward with their demands if you seek changes in work practices. What will this cost the country?
We will try to make changes at the least possible cost. But I do not foresee a situation where it will cost more to achieve higher efficiency because it is primarily a change of attitude that we need.
But we have to understand what we are speaking of when talking about work practices.
Ensuring that employees give a full day’s work is not changing a work practice because it should be taken as given.
I am not seeing radical changes in work practices but if there will be, we will sit down with unions to find solutions. In October I will have the first roundtable conference with unions.
Given the political controversy surrounding your appointment, do you feel this can create problems?
I haven’t experienced any such problems and there shouldn’t be any.
Do you enjoy the unions’ trust?
I believe so. Whenever they hit a brick wall it is me they call. But I do not believe the political controversy should hinder change.
Some argued that my activism with the Labour Party and my past affiliation with the GWU were problematic but I believe that my career advancement in the public sector was stunted precisely because of my beliefs.
You were accused of being a political appointee because of your close ties with the Labour Party. How will this influence your work?
It will absolutely not influence my work... I have had other appointments within the public service in the past and nobody ever accused me or found that I practised political favouritism.
My personal beliefs and my job never meet. I do not believe I am a political appointee... but I do believe that there were political processes in the past that held me back from advancing in my career and for which I have pending court cases.
But how real is political discrimination in the public service?
I suffered from it and I hope that nobody passes from through what I went through.
I will not be the one to practise political discrimination. I am not interested in knowing the political inclinations of heads of department. All I am interested in is that the programme the Government was elected on is implemented.
Isn’t it ironic that a Government seeking to trim costs by simplifying bureaucracy has one of largest Cabinets in decades?
Not at all. A large Cabinet is not an extravagance. It’s big because there are lots of priorities the country wants to address as soon as possible.
Having a small Cabinet will result in decisions not being taken by the ministers but by their underlings, and that is not healthy.
But we have witnessed the recruitment of people from outside the public service in numbers greater than they used to be to fill posts in the ministries’ secretariats. We have seen people who appeared in the Labour Party’s election campaign who are now on the public payroll. Doesn’t this send the wrong message when you want to trim costs?
I disagree with you. These are all temporary positions of trust and they will not be retained.
We will not find ways and means to turn these positions of trust into permanent jobs with the public service.
Are you sure?
You cannot do otherwise because it breaches the Constitution.
But in the past we had people very close to a political party who were appointed heads of department and directors.
Isn’t this the tradition you want to break?
Today, this no longer exists.
But many people from outside the public service were employed in secretariats.
They are not part of the civil service.
Every ministry has a chief of staff, who handles the political side of things – the secretariat that determines strategy – and a permanent secretary, who handles the administrative side: our side.
The administrative side creates the necessary environment to implement policies determined by the Government’s mandate.
What trust can civil servants have when the wife of a minister is employed with Malta Enterprise, a Government agency, without a call for applications?
As if there are calls for applications at those levels. As if there are calls for applications to fill ambassadorial posts – her role as envoy is similar to that of an ambassador.
Doesn’t this send the wrong message?
The message has to be explained like I am trying to do now. Should we say that nobody has the right to be a Labourite or a Nationalist?
Simplifying bureaucracy does not mean we will remove it
We are talking about a minister’s wife, not any other person.
Isn’t it the same thing? Doesn’t she have a right to work?
The country is small and all resources that can be deployed should be used. We are too small to waste our resources.
Whether she is the minister’s wife, his cousin or his niece, the important thing is that the work assigned is done without any shadows hanging over it... all resources must be used, we cannot afford to have resources go to waste.
Resources must not be allowed to go to waste but this may create nepotism.
You cannot know whether there is somebody else who is as qualified or more than her to occupy the role because you did not have a chance to evaluate other people.
If there is, the person is not known. You have to work with the available resources and with people you can trust.
We must not be holier than the Pope. You have to work with capable people whom you can trust.
One of the first decisions taken by this Government soon after your appointment was to ask for the resignation of the permanent secretaries who served under the previous administration. Eventually only three were retained. For the sake of the public service’s peace of mind was this a wise decision?
It was a good decision. It was not a political decision and one I take full responsibility for.
The permanent secretaries that I felt we could work with, and who accepted, were retained.
The way things are progressing confirms it was not a bad decision.
What concrete changes do you foresee in the short term that users of the public service will experience?
Next year, people who reach pensionable age will no longer have to apply to start receiving their pension.
In the technological age, when the Government has your details, you still have to file an application to start receiving a pension.
Changing this will be the first step. Another issue is means testing for social services.
It doesn’t make sense to carry out multiple means tests for different social services.
We have to identify the problems and we will start with services that benefit the vulnerable.
At the end of the five years, where do you see the public service?
I want to see the public service going to the people. I hope we will be present in different localities to offer our services from there.
We can talk of e-government and other technologies but you will always get those who do not have internet access, who do not own a computer or are not tech-savvy.
We have to reach people and make it easier for them to access public services.