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Friday 24 November 2017
Commentary

Public service reform

Part 2

If I may digress a bit, it should be noted that an assessment of the operation and performance of the public service should take into account the existing political environment and the relationship established between senior public servants who are deemed to supervise (and manage) activities in the service and the political directorate, ie, ministers who have ultimate responsibility to the population for government operation and performance.

Following from the previous column, there appears to be no strict demarcation of functions and responsibilities between ministers (politicians) and public servants in the development and execution of policies, programmes and decisions. At times, accusations have been made that both public servants and ministers have breached the limits of their functions and authority.

An outstanding example of alleged misdemeanour by public servants was when, in the mid-1970s, then prime minister Dr Eric Williams publicly excoriated senior public servants for a conspiracy to usurp the functions and powers of ministers and the Cabinet. The unfortunate aspect of this diatribe was to depress morale among senior public servants, which affected the performance of the service. Restricted by regulations, they had no avenue to respond.

When governments are perceived by the public as being ineffective and unable to deliver, many have resorted to place the blame on public servants for inability, failure or deliberate sabotage in implementing policies and decisions. As regards the propensity of some ministers to get involved in the day-to-day activity of their ministries, they rely on the interpretation of a nebulous provision in the Constitution. Sec 85(1) states as follows:

“Where any minister has been assigned responsibility of any department of government, he will exercise general direction and control over that department; and, subject to such direction and control, the department shall be under the supervision of a Permanent Secretary whose office shall be a public office.”

Much dispute has arisen as to what are the parameters of the responsibility for “general direction and control” and of “supervision.” An area of reform which may imply constitutional amendment points to the establishment of greater specification of the functions and responsibilities of ministers and public servants and greater clarity in their relationship.

However, despite difficulties encountered in defining functions and responsibilities in practice, public servants were regarded as having a generally distinct function from ministers in the operations of government. That function demanded neutrality on the part of public servants in executing policy and was based on one of the assumptions of the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy adopted by this country.

It was envisaged that there would be an alternation of political parties in power. Thus, there was a need not only for neutrality but also of permanent tenure in order to dutifully serve any party in power and to provide continuity in the operation of the basic government apparatus and services.

To secure such neutrality and permanence, it was felt that public servants needed to have their status and independence guaranteed and be afforded protection from the arbitrary decisions, incursions and possible victimisation by politicians. It was primarily to fulfil this requirement that the institution of service commissions was adopted and accorded an independent status in the Constitution.

Their responsibility was to recruit, promote, transfer and discipline public servants throughout the service. Some of these functions have, in recent years, been delegated to permanent secretaries and other heads of agencies and services but ultimate responsibility continues to reside in the service commissions. While one recognises the rationale for this arrangement, there were some negative consequences for the functioning of the public service which need to be addressed in any initiative for reform. Security of tenure and assurance of emoluments regardless of performance inculcated a general apathy among public servants with respect to their duty and affected their work ethic.

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