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Regulating official car use

Jun 03,2014 - Last updated at Jun 03,2014

The recent Cabinet measures aiming at regulating official car usage, including the decision to withdraw cars from high government officials and cancel permits already issued authorising the use of such cars, is a step in the right direction.

It should be pursued to the very end lest hesitant half-hearted attempts, so far, to curb this unruly trend should continue to erode state prestige and the resolve to appropriately enforce the law.

For years, successive governments have been talking about their intention to put an end to the unlawful usage of official cars, but there was no visible success.

It was repeatedly said that usage of official cars for private purposes outside office hours would be monitored by the police and that cars caught violating the rules would be impounded.

The measure, which was preceded and indeed succeeded by a flow of government circulars warning against any abuse under the risk of severe liability, also failed to discourage the trend in any meaningful manner.

Months ago, we also heard that the authorities had established a global positioning system (GPS) to monitor movements of official cars by satellite, but that did not seem to have materialised.

The decades-long practice of supplying officials with government vehicles for unrestricted use has, in time, proved to be very costly and improper. It is illegal and can encourage corruption.

It is costly because on top of the price of the car, which is normally high, the government pays for petrol, regular maintenance and insurance.

While such costs may remain within acceptable limits if the cars were to be used strictly for official needs, and if the vehicles would be handled with the same care as one’s own, they do mount otherwise.

Most people find it hard to resist the temptation of making the best out of the opportunity of a free car, particularly when lacking responsibility or legal accountability.

To put it plainly, most individuals would be much more careful when using their own cars, limiting the usage to what is necessary, as every extra kilometre means burning more expensive fuel and wearing off an expensive machine.

That may not apply when someone else, in our case the government, is routinely paying.

The considered solutions of the problem have so far been of no effect. Withdrawing the cars from users may not be a viable solution either. For, what will the government do with thousands of withdrawn cars that would have to be left to rot and rust in government depots, or would be offered for quick sale at give away prices?

Arbitrary and abrupt measures, therefore, are unlikely to deal effectively with a problem that can only be phased out gradually.

If the government decides to abandon the practice altogether, relieving itself of a huge, very costly and very difficult-to-manage undertaking, it can offer staff whose official functions entitle them to a transportation facility some cash allowance calculated in accordance with the size of their justified official needs.

In addition, the government may still keep a number of vehicles for strict official use on specific assignments. Such cars, which normally keep an accurate record of all movement, must be chauffeur-driven and must return to base at the end of each assignment.

But what about the huge fleet of state-owned cars that are already in the hands of a large number of government and other organisations’ directors and officials?

There are three transitional possibilities: offer them for purchase by their users at the correct market price, in addition to a monthly allowance to officials whose nature of work requires official transportation to cover fuel cost; loan the car to its current user on condition that he or she will pay for the fuel and maintenance cost; withdraw the car from use, substituting the current lavish routine by a monthly transport allowance as the work requirement may determine.

All withdrawn cars should be offered for public sale. The government should not provide drivers in any of the above-mentioned alternatives.

What I am suggesting is by no means novel; it was the existing official practice not too long ago, until it became a lavish out-of-control privilege.

Few decades ago, Jordanian ambassadors were not provided with cars by the government. They were offered a very small transportation allowance meant to only partly cover fuel cost. Each ambassador used his own car and paid for all its expenses even for official business.

Other members in the diplomatic service were also granted a small transportation allowance whether they owned cars or used public transport.

Later the practice changed when gradually the government decided to supply some embassies with official cars, without paying for the petrol. The chief of mission paid for petrol from his allowance for both private and official use, but all other expenses, repair, insurance and a driver, were paid by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

From my experience, in more than one proven case, I regret to say that government-owned cars were so badly handled and often left without maintenance, even when still under manufacturer warranty, that their serving life was much shorter than usual.

There is no reason to believe that the same negligence does not occur widely under the current system.

The only radical solution is therefore to end this practice altogether, offer transport allowance to officials whose functions warrant that, and provide official transport for specific assignments only.

This will spare the government not only money but also much headache and management concerns.

Such measure is well overdue. Let us hope we will soon see it being implemented.

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