Beating around the Bush – and the Clock [Archives:1999/43/Focus]

October 25 1999

By: Hassan Al-Haifi
Time and again, our government hits us with fantastic measures on the pretext of finding solutions to its inability to work, as a government should. Sometimes these are inspired by political considerations. Other times, they are based on the prodding of the donors, as a prelude to further aid in the government’s ongoing struggle with itself in the Economic and Reform Program, where it is still hard to tell if we have yet to leave Square One or not! At least, on the surface it looks like we are placating to the donors’ demands, that at last concrete steps are being taken to improve the efficiency and productivity in the formidable bureaucracy, which the government has come to be. Whatever the case, they are often not the results of well thought out analysis and study, nor are they usually the outcome of a broad assessment of their possible impacts, directly or indirectly, on those involved or targeted by such measures who, more often than not may have never been consulted with, or asked for their views or suggestions regarding such measures, anyway.
This week our cabinet came up with decrees that certainly would entail significant changes for the lives of close to half a million military/security and civilian personnel, while at the same time would signify that the qat phenomenon has entered once again in the government’s agenda, as it does every decade or so, without really coming up with any worthwhile action to prove the government’s sincerity or seriousness, in dealing with the problem. The change of the official “working” hours of the government’s overblown staffing have been tied to the alleviation of the embarrassment that the qat phenomenon seems to bring to the government in different ways, from a domestic perspective and an international outlook. It is presumed by the reduction of “free” time for the government staff during the five day work-week that the government staff will not have sufficient time to indulge in the not so hated qat habit, since by the time they come out of work there will not be qat found in the market (Qat can still be found in the market until midnight!) and that the few daylight hours remaining after the work day would discourage people from chewing qat. It would seem that such problems would not be really that serious for the habitual chewers, and one can rest assured that they can adjust their qat schedules, as long as they can afford to maintain the habit accordingly.
Before going any further, this observer should point out something of significant relevance. Back in the good old days Mid-eighties during the political orientation sessions, which all government employees were obliged to attend every Thursday that were conducted under the auspices of the Permanent Committee of the Peoples’ General Congress (the only political organization that was then allowed, by Law, to exist), this observer introduced a suggestion in one of these sessions at the ministry that was, then, kind enough to think I am worthy of active employment, to change the official working hours along the lines suggested by the Cabinet in its recent decree. The topic was “Improving Productivity and Staff Motivation”. Of course, then the economic crunch was just beginning to surface and its adverse effects were just minor symptoms of a cold compared with the heavy mental and physical strain it has come to be now. In fact, the assumption with many people then, was that the crisis was temporary and surely could never get any worse than it was then. Wishful thinking! Moreover government staff salaries were still within the ranges for manageable subsistence, that could have allowed a 2-day weekend to be a welcome respite. This would have allowed the head of the household to have one day to tend to family and personal needs and to have a day of rest, as the Lord, Al-Mighty suggested. Thus the need for “urgent leaves”, sick leaves or leaves to collect/pay rent/look for a cheaper house to rent as the present landlord has raised the rent, etc. Then, it would have given employees a chance to some domestic vacation tours for the family much more affordable then than now. This suggestion would also reduce the hassle and costs of returning for “overtime” work. Like all the overwhelming majority of the hundreds of suggestions that were “raised” to the Permanent Committee of the PGC, there was no indication that this suggestion either reached the Committee or, if it did, was more than just read and filed. Even if it was read, the Presidential Council could really do nothing more than that anyway. It should also be noted that working with the government, then, was a more stimulating and morally inspirational experience.
But now, with a well entrenched monstrous bureaucracy in government, with most government salaries worth a mere fraction of their value and purchasing power (one employee sarcastically suggested that the salary he gets is not sufficient to cover the salt for his meals, let alone the meals themselves!), with the overwhelming majority of the government staff, in effect, not really serving any productive functions or carrying out any meaningful duties merely just eating out the hours and days until pay day arrives, and with many government employees forcefully resorting to other income generation activities in the afternoons (for those who could not get into the knack of maximizing their, what are often called, extra curricular “returns” from government employment) in order to try to make their household budgets try to balance, it just cannot be seen how the new working hours will really improve the productivity of the government employees, nor how government performance will be enhanced accordingly. Nor are there any signs envisaged that such new hours will also raise the motivation and morale of the staff, most of whom are already highly underemployed, and demoralized, and who literally start to crowd the exit halls of their office buildings one hour before the “check-out time”, not sure if they will be able to go home with a processed yogurt (real yogurt is still no where to be found) can and some bread for their kids’ lunch, let alone buy qat!
On the other hand, giving government employees two days off means depriving the employees of a day to escape the from their familys’ suffering and agony and the excuse of being unable to take them out to a free public park wherever such a park can be found because they cannot afford the transport costs to the park! In addition, for those who have made qat a two-day or one-day a week affair, now will have to have a three-day/two-day affair. As for domestic vacation trips, that was scratched out of the family’s planning books almost a decade ago. Moreover, the chance of any over-time income is also removed by the new hours, thus in effect reducing income even more.
Surely, the government could have used its valuable time more productively by getting at the heart of the issues that stand in the way of government efficiency: the open corruption, remuneration and working conditions that have eaten away at the human dignity of the staff, absence of clear professional recruitment criteria and standards of gauging performance, highly politicized bureaucracy, overstaffing, absence of systematic rules, procedures and training, highly centralized structures, overlapping functions and responsibilities, just to name a few of the awe inspiring tasks that certainly deserve priority in the government’s agenda for rehabilitating itself.
In essence, it seems clear that the government is going to have to stop “beating around the bush” and juggling the squares in the time punch cards of its highly depressed human resources, who are really getting fed up at being the continued targeted victims of a civil service ministry that has never done anything repeat, anything – that can be construed as advocating the welfare of the government employees, since 1981, when the unified civil service code was imposed on the government employees, and it has been downhill ever since. If the government, lead by the Ministry of Civil Service, wants to play with time, then it should first, return the hands of the clock to the “good old days”, which the government and no one else booted itself and the rest of the country out of!