The Malta Independent 26 June 2022, Sunday

70% are satisfied. Why?

Mark A. Sammut Sassi Sunday, 22 May 2022, 09:16 Last update: about 2 months ago

If the Eurovision song contest can teach us anything, it is that the best in your country isn’t necessarily the best in Europe (or even Australia...).

Just look at the German song. This was the best the 80-million-strong country could offer and yet it got zero points from the jury and a mere six points from the public. Bottom line: even if you achieve an amazing result in your country, your result has to be compared with others if it is to become meaningful. Meaning derives from comparisons not from contexts of isolation.

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My interest in the Eurovision song contest per se is minimal – this year I watched the finals only after a family member insisted on watching it together. But it gave me a tool better to understand the Eurobarometer survey on the performance of the Maltese civil service.

Seventy percent of the Maltese are satisfied with their civil service according to the survey. This was the parting shot with which the outgoing top civil servant announced his retirement.

It is very much like the German song in the Eurovision. In Germany, that song was judged the best they could produce; in Europe, the worst in the finals.

When Eurobarometer surveys the Maltese, it doesn’t take into account – and let’s be frank about this – that they the Maltese live in splendid isolation, lacking the means to compare their civil service with that of other European states.

In other words, the survey results are essentially meaningless: the comparative elements is missing.

Few Maltese need to use the civil services of other EU countries. Those who do, however, realise that Malta’s civil service infrastructure is weak, primitive, and underdeveloped.

I can mention my own experience. The Friday before the last, I called a government agency and, after some twenty minutes waiting for an operator, the system told me that they were experiencing a higher-than-usual volume of calls and that I should write an email.

Already the fact that they have that kind of pre-recorded message waiting for the hapless citizen indicates that something’s wrong. If every single day you get a “higher-than-usual number of calls”, it means that, no, it is not a higher-than-usual number... it means that that is the actual usual number of calls and you are simply unprepared to deal with the actual number of people who need assistance. If it were not so, you would not have a pre-recorded message which you use on a daily basis! The exception cannot also be the rule!

Anyway. I followed their instructions and wrote an email. This was Friday before the last. Then, last Thursday I get an email from the agency stating that my file was being closed. I couldn’t believe my eyes! The file was being closed but they had done absolutely nothing about it! Since the email said that if I disagreed I should reply, I did just that, and am now waiting again. More than a week has passed waiting for something which, in theory at least, should be routine and therefore simple to solve.

I said to myself, am I the only child of a lesser god who’s getting this kind of lacklustre treatment? After all, 70% of the Maltese are satisfied with the civil service. Perhaps my standards are too high? Perhaps I shouldn’t expect an answer before, let us say, two weeks? Perhaps I compare too much with foreign civil services?

But then, a friend of mine posted something on Facebook, and it helped me understand that I’m not the only one to see things this way.

This person, who I know to be polite, kind, and objective, wrote the following on Facebook. “A soft-spoken lady just called me,” the tale begins, “asking me whether a certain civil servant had returned my call. I didn’t know how to answer.”

“I had asked for information last October, which I needed in order to close a small deal. I always strive to do things by the book, so I requested clarifications from this Government department. All the civil servants I spoke to told me that Mr B was the person who could help me and they all assured me he would be calling me back. Mr B called me this week. He was really kind and did actually explain all that needed to be explained. Needless to say, by then – seven months down the line – the deal had evaporated as my client’s deadline was the end of the year so he understandably found another supplier.”

“Now, I don’t know if Mr B was extraordinarily busy in these seven months, or whether he was on long leave because of personal issues or whether he simply indulged in pastizzi and when their price soared he stopped eating them and remembered he had to call me... Seriously, however, should the entire civil service of a country depend on only one person to give information to the public?”

“So if I tell this soft-spoken lady who called half-an-hour ago that I did receive the call, then my ticket is closed and categorised as a positively-concluded case. I asked her whether she knew when I had made my original call, and she confirmed that it was last October. I asked her whether she knew when Mr B called me, and she confirmed it was now, in May. I told her my entire story and she replied that she will mark the request for information as satisfied.”

“I told her, if somebody is dying and the ambulance reaches them after seven months, what should we say? We’ve got a dead but satisfied patient? Since the only two options to her question were Yes or No, I opted for No. Will there be a follow-up come October?”

I think this story – a true story, taken from Facebook – epitomises the level of service the general public gets from the civil service.

Where does the problem lie? In infrastructure, in management, in a feeble political class that fails to impose discipline on the civil service?

I do not know.

What I do know for sure is that the Eurobarometer result is completely meaningless. And flaunting it as a badge of honour adds insult to injury.

To my mind, the country needs three things.

One, Malta should send more people on internships abroad. Not just Erasmus for university students, but internships for as many government employees as possible. Spending six to ten months living in an efficient country opens one’s eyes to how things are done. Not flawlessly, as perfection doesn’t exist, but professionally.

Two, the civil service should start working in Maltese. For two reasons. First – and let’s call a spade a spade – because a sizeable number of Maltese are insensitive to the nuances of the English language. Second, because working in a language which is not one’s own creates a pyschological barrier. And, again let’s call a spade a spade, the Maltese are not bilingual. Bilingualism means native-speaker fluency in two languages. I do not think that such fluency abounds in Malta.

Three, the political class should strive for less government. But perhaps this is utopian, for it could turn out to be like turkeys lobbying for more than one Christmas per year. Alternatively, if the political class isn’t willing to move in the direction of leaner government, then it could at least start by paying more attention to the Ombudsman’s Office.

My Personal Video Library ()

After my last article, a friend told me that instead of talking about cinema-going, I should refer to live-streaming. He was referring to my argument that nowadays people take films as their new religion, replacing the former “formal” religion. In my article, I suggested that people go “religiously” to the cinema every weekend rather than to Mass. He corrected me, telling me that watching movies on the internet is the dominant behaviour. I think his observation is valid, and I embrace it completely.

The point, of course, remains that films are taken as “gospel”. People seem to forget that films are meant as entertainment, as escapism from mundane monotony, from daily disappointments and failures, and from the tragedies of life. Instead, people look at movies as compasses that help them orientate themselves in life.

I was recently thinking about an iconic scene from the Sopranos series of two decades ago. Tony Soprano is a New Jersey mobster who loves his two families: he loves his two children and he loves his other “family”.

On one occasion, another mobster taunts and sexually harasses Tony’s daughter. When she tells him, Tony drives up to New York City, where the “bad” mobster owns a restaurant, walks into the restaurant, repeatedly strikes the guy with the butt of his pistol, and then grabs him and puts his jaw against the counter and curb stomps him, knocking out nearly all his teeth.

Any father who loves his daughter feels good at this fantasy, and, deep down, almost envies the mobsters who can avenge themselves without the need of State intervention.

But it is a fantasy. And the script-writers hint at this at the end of the scene. As the “bad” guy lies on the floor of the restaurant unconscious, one waiter tells the other, “Let’s bring the mop”. This absurd line leaves no doubt that this is but a fantasy, not real life. In real life, you’d tell your colleague to call a doctor or an ambulance if your boss lies on the floor unconscious, with his teeth knocked out.

The constant exposure to fantasy – not just in mainstream movies but also, say, in the ubiquitous vast selection of pornography freely available at the click of a button – must have profound effects on people’s psychology and moral orientation.

Stories always impart lessons in morality.

New Testament stories, which people used to hear at least once a week, impart lessons based on the values of Christianity (forgiveness, charity, altruism, etc – and all in all, heroism: Christ is the ultimate hero, He who sacrifices His life for the benefit of all of humanity).

Movies impart lessons based on other values.

The question becomes, where does freedom of expression (and the freedom to make money) end?

 

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