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Ministers in virtual parley would be getting special advice off-camera

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“I research questions before coming to parliament,” Assistant Health and Wellness Sethomo Lelatisitswe bragged in parliament not too long ago, adding in the next breath, “I don’t just wing it.”

While one can’t deny that ministers do their own research in addition to that by their administrative support staff, there is only so much they can do because a minister’s plate is always overflowing. For that reason, most of the research work with regard to parliamentary questions that ministers have to tackle is done by senior civil servants and their private secretaries. Pre-Covid and historically when the parliament sat in the upper-house chamber, cabinet ministers have always openly received more than a little help from senior civil servants. The latter typically come to parliament during question time and take up seats within the ground-floor cubicle adjacent the chamber. Via an in-house courier service operated by security guards, they scribble notes to help ministers answer supplementary questions. The notes are promptly dispatched to ministers by security guards – who are allowed to go into the chamber while civil servants are not.

You can well imagine how the latter service would have been intensified and refined with the digital parliament. Civil servants who not too long ago sat tens of metres away in the ground-floor cubicle and relied on security guards to relay information to ministers, are now be able to sit around the minister’s desk off-camera and field supplementary questions as they come. Instead of scribbled notes, they are now able to feed ministers with information instantly and even slip the notes when they are live. This means that the quality of answers that ministers give has improved markedly because the communication channels are operating much more efficiently than ever before.

What no amount of technology is ever going to be able to do though is keep the responses one hundred percent honest. Going back decades, senior civil servants have always purposefully misled ministers who, in turn, mislead the nation through parliament. When such falsehood is discovered, ministers are routinely publicly humiliated with such newspaper headlines as “Minister Lied.” All too often, ministers have to go back to parliament to “set the record straight.” Part of the problem has to do with the ceaseless power struggle between ministers and senior civil servants. As technocrats, the latter have knowledge power, meaning they know much more about a ministry and its work than people who hold political power on account of having won an election.

Specially-elected MP, Unity Dow, has given notice to table a motion that part-reveals one dimension in which this power struggle manifests itself: “That this Honourable House resolves to request Government to establish processes for the sanctioning of Public Officers and/or public offices that fail, refuse or neglect to take decisions in the face of clear regulations and/or policy and/or law requiring that a decision be made.” Indeed, senior civil servants have been known to willfully fail, refuse or neglect to take decisions in the face of clear regulations and/or policy and/or law requiring that a decision be made even when required to do so by ministers.” A former minister, Dow would be more than familiar with this issue.  

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