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Civility and the civil service

Jan 20,2019 - Last updated at Jan 20,2019

Scene I: I am at Jabal Amman’s Civil Status and Passports Department applying for a passport for my uncle. I requested that he be exempted from applying in person because he was over 90 and somewhat frail; but the civil servant before me was clearly an admirer of Shakespeare’s Henry V, because he disguised fair nature with hard-favoured rage… He set the teeth and stretched the nostril wide, and said: “If he is well enough to travel, which is why he wants a passport, then he is well enough to come here.”

Result: I went over his head and the passport was issued without any more unnecessary unpleasantness.

Scene II: I am at Fuheis’s Civil Status and Passports Department. I applied for an ID card for my son, who is on the autism spectrum, and who is irritated by crowds, so I explained the situation to the department manager and asked for her help. This time, the civil servant was an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, for she epitomised his teaching: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” She was everywhere, attending to applicants and helping her staff. She immediately explained to all present that everyone with special needs should be given priority, then she expedited the issuance of our ID. 

Result: I thanked her profusely and wrote a letter to the director general of the Civil Status and Passports Department commending this model civil servant. 

These two scenes, which I relate as faithfully as I can, show the two ends of the spectrum of civil servants. The former example is more prevalent than the latter, which is a big problem because the civil service is the front line of the government’s interaction with the public. 

Most people do not meet and interact directly with cabinet ministers. In fact, a non-specialist, nowadays, barely keeps up with who is minister of what. We know that ministers exist, only because they keep coming up with clever ways to take money away from us.

With civil servants, on the other hand, we interact on a daily basis. They do honourable work, but their job is no longer honoured, which must be frustrating for them. Nevertheless, they should not vent their frustration on the public. 

Their comportment reflects on the whole government, as much as that of ministers, or even the prime minister, because civil servants are the brand ambassadors of the government.

This function is all the more important these days because the government suffers from a crisis of public confidence, which Prime Minister Omar Razzaz acknowledged in more than one statement. 

To regain the public’s trust, it is vital for the government to upgrade the civil service — and not only the departments that collect money, but more urgently, the ones that provide services. 

Most importantly, it needs to eliminate the condescending outlook, inherited from empires long gone, that people do not respond to decency, so they must be controlled through fear. 

In short, the government needs to make civility the hallmark of the civil service.


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