A 'child king' can lead: THA chief sec reflects on anniversary

Ancil Dennis. Photo by Ayanna Kinsale
Ancil Dennis. Photo by Ayanna Kinsale

THE title of Chief Secretary was always meant to be a temporary one for Buccoo/Mt Pleasant representative Ancil Dennis.

At 33, he became the youngest Chief Secretary on May 6 last year, when his predecessor Kelvin Charles was asked to resign, after losing the PNM Tobago Council leadership to Tracy Davidson-Celestine in an internal election.

On assuming the post, Dennis made it clear he respected the convention that the leader of the political party that wins the THA election would become Chief Secretary.

But the January 25 six-six deadlock, to which no solution was found after the THA election, has seen Dennis keep the Chief Secretary’s seat warm for much longer than anticipated.

In an interview with Sunday Newsday on Thursday, Dennis said he felt privileged to serve – and was not getting comfortable in the position.

"I've long accepted that this was not going to be anything permanent. But that's the way it is in public life, nobody is guaranteed anything," he said. "In the Cabinet of TT recently there were changes. Changes can happen any time.

“I'm not one to get comfortable or complacent. It's an opportunity to serve, have a positive impact on fellow Tobagonians.

"I conduct my business with understanding that I'm not here forever. No position belongs to me."

Dennis, who has a master's in public policy and management from the University of London, said the island's future is in good hands, with young leaders coming to the fore.

"It augurs well for our development. It is better to contribute in this way when you are young and you have the energy and vibrant and substance.

“Some are fortunate to stay in it very long. The Prime Minister is 71 and he has been in this from a very young age.

"It is not often (young) people are entrusted with leadership at the very top. It augurs well for young people on the island. My performance shows as an encouragement to people across the country that young persons can actually lead and do well.

“There will always be the element of inexperience, but once people are humble (enough) to understand they don't know it all and listen to the advice of even young people who have expertise, people can learn quickly."

File photo: Chief Secretary Ancil Dennis.

Contempt for young leaders

Asked whether he ever faced a situation where the required respect was not forthcoming because of to his age, Dennis said: "Yeah, generally, persons tend to have some contempt for youthful persons in my position.

"Some members (Watson Duke) of the opposition in Tobago thought it necessary to refer to me as a ‘child king’ or an ‘OJT’ (on-the-job trainee).

“There is (also) some contempt for persons in position of leadership.”

But when he got to work, he said, people realised age didn't matter, “because despite my young age I have the capacity to lead the island effectively during this pandemic."

Looking to the future, Dennis is eagerly anticipating the passage of the Tobago Self Government Bill and the Tobago Island Administration Bill to give the island greater autonomy.

Also proposed is transforming the chief secretary into a premier. But Dennis shrugged off that discussion.

"The important thing for me, at this point in time, is Tobago being able to achieve those objectives, aspirations, that we have been battling for a very long time. It's critical for us to achieve this."

Dennis said the bills aren't perfect, but could advance the island considerably.

"While there are shortcomings, we can fix this... It's important to cross this bridge."

Dennis said he has no intention of being in public life for the rest of his career.

" I'm hoping to do other things in life. Ideally, I'd like to get out before 55, if God blesses me to serve so long. You never know if people decide to give someone else the opportunity."

He described being Chief Secretary as "quite demanding. I've had to make a lot of sacrifices. It's demanding on time – long hours.”

Dennis said he has gained experience through leaning on the advice of others.

"I listen to a number of public servants: the chief administrator Bernadette Solomon-Koroma is a very experienced public servant; my mentor Orville London; I have a number of advisers – experienced and young – particularly this young lady Shivonne Peters, who is quite bright; and regular conversations with the Prime Minister on governance."

Tobagonians often call him and share their observations and concerns, he said and he takes them into consideration too.

Respectful relationship with Tracy

Dennis said his communication with his political leader remains "good, professional and respectful."

However, he acknowledged it was a tricky balance being a subordinate within the PNM Tobago Council but in a senior position within the assembly.

"It is not easy being in this situation where the political leader and chief secretary is not the same person, and this requires tremendous maturity and professionalism."

Asked to describe his style of leadership, Dennis paused before chuckling.

"I hear different comments related to that. I could assume different styles at different times depending on what is required. In most instances, I am the kind of leader that will listen. I like to listen and empower people. I tend to avoid micromanaging and let public servants do what they have to do.

“They are the managers. I am more a leader than a manager.

"Then there are times when a bit of firmness is required. Some may see it as a rebuke."

In November last year, Dennis had some strong words for members of the Division of Finance and the Economy after a video went viral of a "team-building exercise" showing workers singing and dancing around a table, some not wearing their masks correctly.

An upset Dennis described their action as dotishness.

Reflecting on his remark, he said, "It's always best to say things as they are. While I have overall responsibility for the island, I must not hide shortcomings."

Hope for the future

Dennis recently described the pandemic as the "most challenging" thing in his life, but he said Tobagonians must remain "cautious and hopeful" for the future.

"You can’t shut down forever. The hope is that during this period, what is required, we get infections down to an acceptable level and get citizens as vaccinated as possible.

“That has to be the approach. But in the meantime we ought to be more disciplined."

Dennis said he was disheartened to see Tobago recently among the top two divisions in the country for arrests during curfew hours.

He said there are other things the island needs to adjust to become the tourism destination it prides itself to be.

"Customer service must improve. We are a tourism destination, but I think, across the board, there are a number of complaints. When you look at international reviews on websites, Tobago gets poor ratings (in customer service).

“Even in public service you call and don't get the professional, courteous service.

“The THA is not turning a blind eye to that. We are in the process of launching our customer-service training programme and partnering with a reputable training organisation to provide training."

Dennis said serving as chief secretary during this unprecedented time has been a privilege which he has not taken for granted.

"It was quite a challenge for a young man like myself, in the most difficult history of the island. But with support and love of many Tobagonians, I have been blessed to be in service to the people of Tobago. I want to give people the assurance that I'll discharge my responsibility without fear or favour."


"A ‘child king’ can lead: THA chief sec reflects on anniversary"

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