Dr. Fraser- Point of View
June 29, 2018
A view of the Public Service from outside

Searchlight’s editorial of last week, captioned “Take Another Look, Mr Prime Minister”, might have opened a can of worms. In any event it is, hopefully, the start of a conversation that is long overdue. Here is my contribution.

The editorial was a response to the PM’s call to the public to report, directly to his office, any complaints about the non-performance of public officers. The last paragraph of the editorial is most important, describing the problem as systemic and more complex than it is made out to be.

It suggests that the issue demands that “…the executive (to) look inward at the hiring, promotion and appointment procedures and the performance of those who manage the public service.” It suggests, too, that the Prime Minister’s description of the problem leads to the conclusion that supervisors, permanent secretaries and heads of departments have been sleeping on their jobs.

Anyone who has been following developments in the public service would know that these are issues which have long been festering. When I hear stories, some first hand, of the operation of the public service, it does not surprise me that some senior officials might indeed be physically sleeping on their jobs. Our public service today is a shadow of the one we inherited, one whose neutrality was one of its hallmarks. Speak to senior retired public servants and they will tell you how shocked they are at the state of the public service.

First some truths. Too often persons are promoted not on the basis of their competence, commitment, and experience, but on loyalty.

Many are frustrated when persons from lower ranks, often without the requisite skills and commitment are promoted over them. There are too many examples of those who were catapulted into positions having to depend on those whom they had bypassed for guidance and ‘tutorial’ help. Recently I met a public servant who had that experience and was so frustrated that she was contemplating early retirement. In her case, she was transferred to another department to make way for the favoured one. 

The net result is to have square pegs in round holes. But even more alarming is to be confronted with a situation where some senior officials are unable to discipline juniors who let them know that their loyalty lies elsewhere, and they will only accept orders from ‘elsewhere’. After all, they did not owe their positions to them.

Some years ago, Kenny Anthony, then PM of St Lucia, in an address at the Methodist Church Hall, was very critical of his colleagues for allowing matters to come to Cabinet that really have no right being there. No wonder senior supervisors and heads of departments are reluctant to make decisions when they know that persons who felt aggrieved would appeal to higher authorities. All of this creates frustration, with public servants playing out their anger on the public they should be serving. Some naturally work below capacity. If my memory isn’t playing tricks, I have heard of cases of persons guilty of misdemeanours being promoted rather than penalised.

A happy and properly functioning public service, is critical to any country’s development, especially one where the state looms large. When Cabinet is taken up with matters that should never have reached them, it leaves them with little time to handle major policy matters that should be guiding our country.

I have only touched the surface of a colossal problem that is crippling an institution that is so necessary to take us forward. What is needed is a total overhaul, especially where many who staff the institution do not understand its history, nature, and significance.