Thursday, November 24, 2011

Why the public lost: ‘shifting goalposts’ and ‘good intention’ of bad goalkeepers

A few days ago Datuk Seri Azmi Khalid the Chairman of PAC, perhaps the most powerful parliamentary committee, charged with overseeing government spending, gave a press conference in connection with the National Feedlot Corporation  (NFC) debacle. On specific issues pertaining to NFC, he explained that so far the committee had invited only the Ministry of Agriculture. As he would be meeting the Ministry of Finance and NFC in January 2012, he refrained from commenting on the specific issues of NFC until then. On this front, fair enough.
However, while not commenting much on NFC, he said many other interesting things on the state of our government spending. He spoke of recurring patterns of poor management, bad planning and cripling delays in all ministries, departments, affecting not just NFC but ‘many many’ other projects across the board. His intonation is interesting enough, as well as his line of reasoning. I find it interesting to reflect upon as a discourse.  While lashing out at the general pattern of mismanagement and bad planning, he sounded almost like softening the gravity of the individual case of NFC by pleading a general malady affecting many, if not all ministries and government departments. In other words, thus run his line of reasoning: ‘do not single out NFC as bad, for generally they are all bad’. Since they are all bad, NFC is not that bad after all since it conforms to the general and recurring pattern! Hence it is all quite normal really, in ‘the nature of things’.
From this line of reduction, converting the individual case of NFC into the general, Datuk Seri Azmi Khalid then launched into denouncing the general malady, pledging to look into the problem, for the reason the public has had enough of the spinning and the twisting, so much so they do not believe the government even when it is telling the truth! This line of reasoning in a way conditions the ground for more spinning and twisting, implicitly suggesting that even as ministries and government department spin and manoeuvre in tight corners, they could well be telling the truth It is only public disgust and exasperation that’s blinding them from seeing truth! After morphing the individual case into the general, the gravity of the general is then ‘sanitize’ by insisting a ‘relook’ into the way the government manages and spends fund. In this manner, ‘action’ is seen or felt to be taken towards redressing the general problem of mismanagement, bad planning and paralysing delays affecting many projects.
While steps are being taken to ‘relook’ into the problem , the current mismanagement and misspending are absolved by Datuk Seri Azmi Khalid’s emphatic statement  that ‘all done with good intention’. In other words the mismanagement, misspending and bad planning are all the doings of honest but alas incompetent idiots. Well it all sounds like a fatal combination for the nation. On the one hand we have  'honest' idiots running ministries and the public sector, on the other hand we have dishonest clever people plundering the nation. Given this scenario can our nation survive in the long run! Nevertheless it explains a lot. It explains why public fund is readily depleted and wasted by the billions, while financial wizards, great industrialists and entrepreneurs seem always to end up with great fortunes. Perhaps there is much truth in Mahatma Gandhi's saying: 'Behind any great fortune there is always a crime'. Excuse me.. perhaps I should say: 'Behind any great fortune there is always an honest idiot'!
The kind of ‘delay’ Datuk Seri Azmi speaks of is not of the usual kind. Ordinarily what we understand by 'delay' is the kind that holds things up, hampers development or progress of a whole process. The kind of ‘delay’ he speaks of is of a special kind. It holds things up only partially, while expediting other elements in the same process or transaction. He gives an example, reflective  he said of a general pattern! In the case of the NFC, all the money for the project had been withdrawn by 2009, but due to ‘delay’ the contract or agreement was signed only in 2010. There you have it! In this form of ‘delay’ it expedited  payment and withdrawal, completed even before the agreement. Simultaneously the ‘delay’ holds up the agreement, effecting 'spedious' payment.
This peculiar form of ‘delay’, which upsets the normal sequence of agreement and payment, gives rise to an associated malady. Datuk Seri Azmi refered to the problem of ‘shifting goalpost’. He explains the problem as one in which obligations and things to be done keep changing. If before the deal was to do such and such, in the end they become different things altogether! Wow…this is dead serious for the nation. Small wonder why many mega projects went haywire and down the drain. It explains the ‘blunders’, ‘bad planning’ and the whole complex of ‘bad management’, ‘misspending’, or ‘non- deliveries’. Once payment had been secured prior to agreement, of course obligations and accountability would be weakened or subjected to renegotiation. Hence the ‘shifting goalpost’ and ‘changing targets’ lamented by the Chairman of PAC.
Given the vicious cycle of ‘shifting goalposts’, where honest idiots are confronted  by clever crooks, can the public ever win? A small comfort though to learn that the problem is being ‘relooked’ into by PAC!

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