Editorial | Wednesday, 21 May 2008
The composition of government boards has always been a source of controversy, with accusations of jobs “given to the boys” rather than distributed on a criterion of meritocracy, leading to cynicism every time a new board is made known.
The practice ever since Independence has been that the choice is the prerogative of the Prime Minister, usually exercised, though not necessarily always, in consultation with the minister responsible for the department under which the board functions.
The practice has varied only in the excess of partisanship shown with Dom Mintoff actually appointing parliamentary backbenchers and party officials to highly sensitive posts, while Fenech Adami, who excluded backbenchers and party officials, tended to appoint persons well known for their political allegiances.
These criteria have led to general mistrust of the boards’ composition. Also, as a result of a system of lobbying and peddling of influence, many, though not all, of these boards are often made up of yes-men pledging full allegiance to their party and government, unaware of the great responsibilities which they carry at law, and despite the growing climate that good governance should spur the holders of public office. Regrettably, this system has led to a situation whereby the best qualified and most likely to be good performers are rarely given a fighting chance of even being considered as members of boards.
All of this, however, took a turn for the better when the electoral programme of the Nationalist Party seemed to have come face to face with the shortcomings of this system of appointments, and pledged that all new appointments would be considered following a call for applications and a general round of consultations.
This electoral promise was very well received. However, it was also very short-lived, and has not been followed in the new choices made, much to the regret of the GRTU and to the general electorate: many of whom would have loved an opportunity to at least be considered for public office without going through the humiliation of lobbying and peddling influence.
Appointments are always likely to be a difficult and messy choice, leading to general cynicism, but we believe that if certain ground rules are set, the acceptability of the persons chosen can be met with a wider acceptance.
There should be no a priori hindrance of any who happen to belong to one or another of the main political parties. Consequently, Labourites should not just be excluded because of their political allegiances; but in like manner, neither should Nationalists be barred from high office just because their party is in government.
The choices should be made on the basis of the qualifications and the merits of the individual himself or herself. Accordingly, values of integrity and honesty must be a prime consideration, especially since at board level, decisions with major pecuniary interests are taken. Qualifications are also important, since knowledge of the workings of a particular line of business could be a major asset, as long as no suspicion of potential conflict of interest arises.
An aptitude to take decisions dispassionately and in the general interest of the company, rather than of oneself, is also a major consideration and the tenets of good governance should be sown at board level for all to realise their responsibilities. Personal interests and assets of all persons chosen should definitely be made known, at least to all round the boardroom table, and at most in a public declaration to ensure that there is a transparent functioning of the board. Periodically, all boards should be asked to produce and the minister should present in parliament a report every year on the workings of the board with decisions taken and tasks set.
This will all help increase public trust in the workings of the boards, and put all appointees on notice that their presence goes far beyond their monthly salary, and cuts at the heart of good governance. There should also be a happy age mix, with the wisdom of age amalgamated with the enthusiasm of youth, and there should be a fair quota of women appointed so as to start breaking the glass ceiling which all too often has left the male sector dominant in all major decisions. A female perspective to the workings of government could go a long way towards making government more humane and sensitive to the problems of ordinary people.
The new government has an opportunity to revolutionise the appointments system, as promised in its electoral programme, by choosing according to its own criteria in the many future appointments to be made. By so doing, not only will the system be met with more public trust and acceptability, but more importantly a better crop of directors will surface to the benefit of better governance of public entities.
It is not too late to start implementing one’s own promises.
21 May 2008
ISSUE NO. 536