(File pix) Datuk Seri Dr Ismail Abu Bakar (left) took over from Tan Sri Dr Ali Hamsa as chief secretary to the government recently.

THE Finance Ministry must be busy preparing the 2019 Budget, the first budget of the new government. It must be a challenging time for those involved in its preparation.

Considering the situation as a whole, especially with so many things the government intends to do, improving the government finance for one, and restoring confidence in the business climate, I am reminded of what Charles Dickens once said: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

The economy may slow down somewhat on the back of slowing aggregate demand, given the exercise to review and scale down major projects that have a put strain on the public sector’s debt management.

The government’s move to put more attention on fiscal management is wise. Addressing the budgetary deficit and its finance issues demands attention not only at the macro level, but also strong support from departments and officials in the public sector, especially those involved in project planning.

Expenditure reduction is one right strategy and this is now being carried out. More importantly is the plan to improve efficiency and effectiveness of public expenditure for projects.

The new budgetary approach that emphasises on project impact is a good attempt, but it needs more complementary measures at the planning level.

Projects must be planned to economise public financial resources on one hand, and the need to boost policy delivery on the other.

For this to happen, senior officials of ministries and departments must give more attention to programme and project planning.

To assume that civil servants are good at programme and project planning now, the way their seniors in the 1970s were, is a simplistic assumption. In fact, the planning skills among officers in the middle and lower ranks now are minimal.

For this matter, the National Institute of Public Administration (Intan), once the bastion of skills training for public sector officials, has to provide skills training in this field all over again.

The delivery of policy and programmes depends much on planning and preparation. Failure to plan is courting disaster in delivery. The prison project in Kuching, Sarawak, is a case in point, and I am not too sure whether it is completed.

My experience in ministries and departments tells me that this is indeed the case, especially when we rush projects.

Cost consideration is all the more critical now. There may be many opportunities to achieve programme delivery with lower financial outlay.

Given the government’s emphasis on transparency, a good project conceptualisation and planning, coupled with open bidding, will allow project delivery as planned.

A private foreign university in Negri Sembilan was built just about a quarter of the cost of a public university in the same state, given its open bidding and good project planning and designing, emphasising on economy, especially on the use of the assets.

In building a mosque, the foreign university took into consideration the diversity and gender of the student population (girls don’t attend Friday prayers, for example).

On the contrary, the public university tends to listen to contractors more if the project implementation is by means of direct negotiation.

In addition, much of the allocation was used for non-critical purposes, such as administration buildings and halls rather than for academic buildings.

The point is that lavish allocation and poor planning cannot be tolerated, especially now, when the government is bent on good governance, transparency, and expenditure controls.

This is the time for the civil service to rise up to the occasion, to bring back the confidence of the public and the government of their services.

The civil service is duty bound to help the new government meet its promises, through sound fiscal policies, and efficient management and delivery.

As mentioned by the prime minister, many of his cabinet members are inexperienced in public sector management.

Let’s give support to the new leadership of the public service, Datuk Seri Dr Ismail Abu Bakar, the recently-appointed chief secretary to the government, of whom I worked with in the Economics Division of the Federal Treasury in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Ismail is well grounded in public finance, an experience we need much now.

Hopefully, this write-up emphasising on the importance of efficiency in managing public expenditure and on the need for good project planning reminds and refreshes civil servants of their role in ensuring good fiscal management.

Sulaiman Mahbob is the chairman of the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research

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