Like me, many were a bit startled and puzzled when I saw the extent to which Prime Minister Kamla-Persad Bissessar had altered her Cabinet.
Some 30 or more persons were moved around in what was a "makeover" rather than a mere reshuffle. It was almost as if she herself felt that she had made a false start in 2010 and was giving herself another bite at the governance cherry, with another bite to come in terms of boards. Were all the changes necessary? Was it a sign of strength, weakness, or a show of power?
The changes however suggested that the PM was genuinely dissatisfied with the performance of her first team which she believed was not delivering as well as she had hoped.
This of course raises the question as to what is deemed a good, bad or indifferent ministerial performance. This is a question which her predecessor Mr Manning faced in 2007. How did he determine that (Ken) Valley, (Camille) Robinson-Regis et al were not performing well? Ministers are multitaskers. They are not only expected to make deliveries, run errands, and make policy; they also have to function as part of an executive team since they are all responsible for government's policies. They are also members of Parliament wherein they have to speak on behalf of the government. They are also constituency representatives and have to look after the mundane but critically urgent needs of their constituents. Many of the latter complain that they have not seen their MP since they were elected and that the roads were still very bad, the drains very waterlogged or full of bush, or that the garbage which they themselves had helped to clog with plastic cups and beverage bottles, was still not being picked up. Some of these things are to be done by Local Government representatives, but citizens still believe that their MPs have to be scavengers or utility providers.
Added to all this, the ministers have to get to know their bureaucratic team, who in turn have to learn to work with each other and they with him. Critical is the fact that the Minister and his team have to work with other ministers and their teams before policy can be implemented. They also have to learn the folkways of the public service. All of those chores occupy space and time and serve to explain why it is not easy for ministers, especially new ministers, to perform well for their performances to be fairly judged.
One of the key responsibilities which a PM has is to determine what factors to consider in making changes? Who or what is to blame? Is it the Minister or those whose behaviour constrains him? How much blame or praise accrues to the media for outcomes? Do they pump up a Minister because he is garrulous, newsworthy and deny praise to others because he/she is not accessible or controversial? The media often ignore some hard working ministers because the matters over which he/she presides is not newsworthy or because he/she lacks charisma or presence.
In making her judgments, the Prime Minister would presumably weigh and take into account all the inputs of which she knows about. But there are unknowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. Given our reliance on the Westminster constitutional model, she is not obliged to consult with anyone. She would certainly not have to consult the President who acts on her advice. If she has important coalition partners, she might want to take them into her confidence. But she is under no constitutional obligation to consult them or him. In European systems, consultation is normal or obligatory.
The PM has to calculate and carefully weigh how her decisions appear to her colleagues and also the public mind. How does it play in Peoria? Her colleagues in various ways signal their broad approval and disapproval and some may even refuse her invitation as Rowley and Valley did when Manning made them offers which they deemed unacceptable. Were the choices sensible, whimsical, or vindictive? Do they outrage the public? Do the changes seem to make sense either in terms of policy or politics?
The size of the Cabinet also determines the strategy. In a big Cabinet one can be careless with appointments. In a small Cabinet, hard choices have to be made. Caribbean cabinets are however generally huge: all the boys and girls have to be given the trappings of executive power.
The PM justifies the big tent option which she says was determined by the need to have hands- on ministers to drive policy. The argument that is normally given by those who believe in "macco" cabinets is that it is related to the nature of the bureaucracy. If your public servants are strong as they are said to be in the UK, you can do with a small cabinet. If your public servants are weak or not given to policy activism, you need ministers to get the boat moving.
This might be true in some cases, but it may be that the main reason for our large cabinets has more to do with patronage and the need to retain the support and loyalty of the influentials and those who need well paying jobs. The PM however insists that the reasons are functional, and that the aim is to promote better delivery and effectiveness. As she insisted, "there are so many concerns, so many issues to deal with in this country. I do believe the configuration of the cabinet as it now stands is better poised for greater performance and implementation".
Mr Panday may however be correct when he argues that shape and size do not matter much; it is the nature of the output that matters. In any event, he argues, ministers are not expected to implement policy. Their role is to make policy and inspire public servants. Leadership is what matters. Mr Panday's point is that breaking up a ministry may make matters worse. Institutional capital may go down the drain.
Looking at the PM's particular allocations, I get the impressions that the restructuring did not meet with the hoped for widespread endorsement. For one thing, there is the feeling that too many new portfolios were created unnecessarily and that this would lead to confusion.The PM clearly believes that her Cabinet is poised to deliver. She has chosen Larry Howai and Jack Warner to be her miracle men. My suspicion (or more than that) is that Jack will backfire before one says "Jack Robinson". Mano Dura (iron fist) strategies have not worked anywhere, either in Jamaica or elsewhere in the Americas. It has failed in every case and invariably provoked illiberal reactions.
We will not have to wait long to see. It could happen soon.