Public Service must prepare

YOU HEAR a lot about plans at elections. But while political platform promises are important, there is another set of planning, done away from the limelight, that is vital to our interests.

The Public Service is essential to democracy. Its personnel and systems, though often used to give life to government policy for better or worse, are meant to stand separate and apart from politics.

We today call on public servants to redouble their efforts ahead of Monday’s general election to ensure the State functions smoothly come what may. The Public Service must ensure it has appropriate plans in place for any eventuality.

This is particularly so given several factors that have shaped this year’s election campaign. The first is that the election will present unprecedented challenges arising from covid19, and how things go on polling day remains to be seen.

Secondly, by now several political parties have raised the prospect of multiple court proceedings against the results, whatever they may be, meaning judges might be asked to stop key declarations.

Thirdly, opinion polls have suggested a close race, raising the possibility of a hung Parliament in which one or two voices could well determine who sits in Whitehall, after a period of talks and negotiations.

While there will be a caretaker government, and while the status quo could be maintained if there is any delay, the Executive will be stopped from making major policy decisions. Public servants will have a key role to play in such an interregnum.

Contingency plans, therefore, should be reviewed or refreshed. And particular attention needs to be paid to the vagaries of the pandemic.

This could well be a time when the guidance of career public servants, with professional experience in training in the law and precedent that apply to their role, becomes more essential than normal.

In this regard, it is not ideal to have an “acting” permanent secretary – a contradiction if ever there was one – in post at the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), as appears to be the case, according to the OPM’s website. The PM’s permanent secretary is, ex officio, head of the Public Service.

Though they perform incredibly important functions, constitutional reform as it relates to the Public Service and bodies such as the Public Service Commission has not been at the forefront of the political discourse during this campaign. It has been trumpeted occasionally for decades, but no major overhaul has been apparent.

There is room for discussion of such issues. For example, despite its obvious importance, the OPM is not established by statute and is governed by conventions, legal precedent and the dictates of the officeholder. Should this be so?

This is yet another reason why, come next week, public servants could become even more important. In many respects, they are the State’s backbone.


"Public Service must prepare"

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