Transforming the public service


Rishi Maharaj, executive director of EquiGov Institute

Generally, when one is asked to give their opinion on the public service and public officers in TT, the following terms usually come up:

• lazy

• corrupt

• red tape

• runaround, etc.

The image of public services and public officers are almost identical, with “poor service," “corrupt” and “slow” being the most popular words people would choose to describe them.

The hypothesis that people were critical of the public services but thought well of public servants was therefore found empirically wrong.

Yet is this image fair?

My answer would be yes and no. This answer comes from having worked in the public service for over 12 years and having the opportunity to work with senior public officers, experienced permanent secretaries, ministers and well as the general administrative and clerical staff in several ministries.

While the general image of public officers being lazy and unable to do their job may be true in some circumstances, I have found this also has a lot to do with the current systems and process in the service.

For many who may not be aware. our public service is enshrined by legislation that dates back to the 1960s. These laws, such as the Public Service Regulations, the Civil Service Act, the Exchequer and Audit Act, the Pensions Act, etc, set out the general way the public service ought to operate.

While these would have been relevant in the 1960s, fast-forward 50-plus years and take into consideration the advances in the way we live and operate in the 21st century, one can argue that the current legislative framework is no longer relevant.

In fact, while many public officers acknowledge this, successive administrations haven’t taken the necessary steps to correct this, thereby leaving public officers handicapped and unable to adapt to the changing environment.

I am of the view that we have some of the best-trained public officers in the world, as millions are spent every year by ministries on training officers in new technology and ways of doing business. However, when many return to their respective agencies and try to implement these new skills, they are often faced with a “stone wall” (the legislation) which prevents them from doing anything. Many are therefore left frustrated and just go about their daily routine or seek alternative employment opportunities (if they are able to) outside the public service.

Another issue facing the public service (but which so far as not got enough attention) is the decreasing number of public officers. Over the last decade one would have heard numerous claims by the PSA and several ministries of the number of vacancies in the public service. Because of this many public officers are overworked, which leads to poor service delivery and other issues like corruption, etc.

In fact, by my estimation, we would have lost over 7,500 public officers during the period 2019-2020. This is because the baby boomer generation – those born between 1946 and 1964 – the generation who would have staffed the public service in its early years – is now reaching the age of retirement.

The flip side is that the public service is not hiring enough staff to replace those who are retiring. This is mainly due to two main reasons: the public service is no longer able to attract the younger generation and faces competition from the private sector and other countries for talent; and the current process for getting into the service is long and totally paper-based.

For example, I applied for a position as a foreign service officer I in 2002 and did the exam later that year, but was not called for an interview until 2005. By then, of course, my vision for myself would have changed.

So why, you would ask, has no government tried to change this system?

Several attempts have been made. Figure 1 highlights the reform efforts over the last 50-plus years. So then the question must be asked: if we have done so much work understanding the issues faced by the public service and have recommendations for transforming it into a more effective and efficient organisation for TT, why has nothing been done?

From my experience there are two main issues. Firstly there is a genuine resistance to change by some in the public service. This may be because any reform in the current service may limit the power some officers may have to earn what I like to term “alternative income."

We have to be honest: the current red tape leads to the ability for corrupt activities to flourish in the delivery of public services, and those who benefit from this will do anything in their power to prevent it. Also, many officers fear that any transformation would lead to job losses (a mantra usually facilitated by the representative unions). While this may be true, from my experience this fear usually comes from lack of trust in the politicians and miscommunication or no communication at all when the conversation on reform comes up.

The second and, for me, the main reason for the failure to implement any successful reform efforts has to do with political will. Successive administrations generally pay lip service to the ideals of public-service reform and spend the first three years of their term reviewing past efforts and putting their own unique spin on it. Then by the fourth year (with elections around the corner) whatever “reform” is done is generally window-dressing to give the illusion of change and win re-election. Then we start the cycle all over again.

So how exactly do we transform this beast called the public service?

We have to first admit that it is not going to be an easy task. After all we are speaking about a culture and system that has existed for a very long time and which individuals have a vested interest in maintaining.

However, I would like to suggest the following ideas:

• Set the number of ministries we have.

• Amalgamate the Public Service Commission, Personnel Department, Public Management Consulting Division into one central body that:

o provides a framework for how ministries should operate.

o allows ministries the flexibility in the way they hire public officers, set compensation policy etc.

o audits ministries to ensure compliance.

o functions as an appeals body for persons who feel aggrieved by ministries operations.

• Let ministries set policy directions and provide general oversight for monitoring and evaluation and allow municipal corporations to implement and provide services to the general population.

Whether or not these suggestions are considered, the fact remains that in these challenging economic times it can no longer be business as usual. Those who fail to adapt are doomed to failure. Public-sector transformation can no longer be looked at in isolation but must be viewed as the engine that can propel TT to sustainable development.

The Equigov Institute provides consultancy, training and research in data privacy/protection, governance, information access, transparency, and monitoring and evaluation.


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