Civil service key to success

A disconnect between politicians and the bureaucrats who work for them is causing major problems in governments throughout the Caribbean, according to a Trinidad and Tobago senator who spoke in Cayman last week.

‘A public service bureaucracy could make or break any government by many means, all of which are totally legal,’ said Senator Ramesh Deosaran. ‘But the public servant doesn’t get the blame. It is the government that has to stand totally accused in the public eye.’

Mr. Deosaran’s comments came during his address to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which held its regional conference in Cayman recently.

His address titled ‘the role of the civil servant: embracing a new culture of governance’ was decidedly negative concerning the chances governments in the region have of affecting that new culture.

‘How can you use the culture that is the problem to generate a new dimension, a new culture?’ Mr. Deosaran asked the conference delegates.

Generally speaking, Western Hemisphere democracies have a two-tier system of governance; the elected leaders who set broad policy goals, and the civil servants who execute those plans.

But Mr. Deosaran said, in practice, civil servants…particularly high-ranking permanent secretaries or chief officers…have a great deal of impact on public policy.

‘Especially if there is a minister…who is new in that area, and who perhaps lacks experience in a particular ministry,’ he said. ‘A senior public servant could entangle his or her minister with such smooth diplomacy that the minister only realises what happened weeks afterwards.’

However, Mr. Deosaran also acknowledged that governments themselves must change the way they view civil service if that area of government is to improve.

‘If you want to embrace a new political culture, you have to make sure that the conditions and the salaries provided for these public servants are not only adequate…but competitive; especially if you’re asking the public servant to behave as if he or she is working in the private sector,’ he said.

Cayman has taken steps over the past two years to do just that.

Civil servants have received a total eight percent pay increase since late last year. Also, in January a new public service law took effect which will eventually move the government toward a performance based pay system.

The law abolished the Public Service Commission, which previously had to approve all government hires, and made hiring and firing the responsibility of chief officers. Each officer gets a certain budget to work with and must achieve certain outputs. If those outputs are not achieved, the law allows ministers to withhold payment to departments who don’t make the grade.

Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts has said the system is a move toward making government operations more business-like, and giving departments the ability to reward workers for good performance.

The system has its detractors. Former Department of Employment Relations Director Walling Whittaker was generally critical of performance-based pay systems in government prior to his departure from the civil service.

‘You are hard pressed to find one instance, in any jurisdiction, in any country, where performance-based pay in the civil service has been successful,’ Mr. Whittaker said (Caymanian Compass, 26 January)

During his address last week, Mr. Deosaran said he believed civil servants could make the change, but would require some assistance and training.

‘There’s a big gap in the expertise available and the demands upon government,’ he said.

In attempts to address that problem, the Cayman Islands will open a Civil Service College in September. Just less than $800,000 has been budgeted for the college this year.

The college is envisioned as both a re-training facility for current government managers, and a way of providing new skills for lower-level employees who may one day wish to move up.

University College of the Cayman Islands Professor Bob Weisham recently told a group of delegates from around the world attending the Commonwealth Regional Workshop on e-governance that the Civil Service College would breathe new life into government service.

‘No one wants the stereotype idea of public servants. We need government service to take back the sense of pride and the sense of being a noble vocation,’ he said recently. (Compass, 15 June)

‘If we have problems in our public service, it is not because we have evil people or bumbling idiots in those jobs, it is often because we haven’t given the opportunity to people to be great.’

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