Independent - Friday Wisdom Malta
In my professional work as management consultant I consider myself as an agent of change.
A consultant’s job is to add a fresh unbiased external view to a corporate problem, propose solutions free from the legacy limitations most internal management willingly or sub-consciously subject themselves to, remove the barriers to change that could stifle the proposed solutions no matter how well thought out, aid management to deliver the solutions with effectiveness, efficiency and determination and make himself/ herself redundant so that the company can enjoy the benefits of change in a period of relative stability and consolidation after the metamorphosis of change that consultants often bring to the organisation.
One of the organisations I brought substantial changes to is MITTS, the former MSU. Soon after labour government of 1996 was voted in office the Prime Minister asked me, in my capacity as a management consultant, to undertake an urgent study of the organisation and issue a report detailing its strengths and weaknesses and making recommendations how the company could go forward.
MSU was a hot topic in the election campaign of 1996 with Labour accusing the incumbent government of hubris and waste in the way MSU was managed. The Opposition appointed chairman of the Public Accounts Committee had resigned his position in protest for reluctance by the then chairman of MSU to give full and detailed account of salaries paid by the company on the pretext of this being sensitive commercial information. Little did it bother the then chairman of MSU that in fact the company had a monopoly over government’s IT services, was not subject to any commercial competitive pressures and in fact was a commercial company only in name as the company operated as if it were a government department but without the bureaucratic control of public spending.
It is sufficient to say that the funds which the company considered as revenue in its published accounts were voted directly to it under a specific budgetary vote under the Office of the Prime Minister’s budgetary allocations and that this revenue was claimed irrespective of what the company actually delivered in return. In fact the commercial accounts published by the company at the time could not reflect a true commercial profit as there was the paradox that the less the company delivered the less variable expenses it incurred and with revenue taken in irrespective of performance the less the company delivered the higher the profit it registered. By the same yardstick the Drydocks would have been a money spinner!
The change I brought about at MSU was not simply its new name MITTS (Malta Information technology and Training Services) but more importantly in adopting a strict focus on IT proficiency with its management consultancy division migrating back to the central government.
The management consultancy was renamed Management Efficiency Unit (MEU) and was integrated within the OPM where it is still effectively churning out very professional consultancy report on how government might bring about the necessary restructuring change to the economy if it really had the will power and the political courage to do so rather than simply hide behind such reports to appear to be trying to do something without actually biting the bullet which though necessary is unpleasant in electoral popularity terms.
MITTS on the other hand was made to sign full commercial agreements with government users detailing what it is meant to deliver on what terms and at what price and the budgetary allocations from central government budget were made to the departments concerned who then had to spend the funds in terms of public sector financial regulations.
The changes I proposed were broadly accepted and they endured nine years so far. I had successfully preserved all that was worth saving and drained away the dirty water without endangering the baby. MITTS was freed from the illusion that it could reform the public service by throwing computers, consultants report and other expensive systems at central government and instead turned itself into a competent, efficient and reliable IT service provider for the public sector. The problem is that the change that was started was not continued. MITTS is today still stalled where I left it n 1998. This leads me to the myths of what it might have been.
After chewing the 1996 structural changes I was asked to serve as a director on the Board and was working on the next step change following a period of stability. My dream was to have the company privatised through an employees buy-out of a majority stake through a purposely created structure (commercial company, co-operative or foundation). After all as an IT company the best asset of MITTS is the brain power of its employees and I can vouch that at least at the time, the organisation hosted the best and the brainiest. The challenge was to energise these human resources and liberalise their creativity to lead them to model a tiny silicon valley in our midst.
Whilst signing a long term agreement to continue servicing government on existent systems where government depended on MITTS for continuity, I had envisioned liberalising supply of new systems with part of MITTS migrating to government to ensure it can control quality and inter-operability whilst MITTS operated in a free market to supply government but preferably finding international niches to market its expertise. With Y2K two years down the road I was certain that demand for their services from international orders would have established the company on a recognised international platform.
One could easily write off these visions as myths. But the problem with this country and its stagnation is that we have stopped dreaming, we have stifled creativity with bureaucracy and built systems to ensure that finger pointing for failure will be suffered by the system not by individuals.
We have messed up quite a few privatisations. Sins of commission are easier to prove. Since of omissions, as in case of non-privatisation of MITTS, are harder to pin down and anyone who dares could easily be written off as a dreamer or myth writer. But this does not render sins of omission any less serious.