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Sat Maharaj And The Public Service (II)

By Selwyn Ryan

Space and time did not allow me to complete the reply which I intended to give to Mr Sat Maharaj’s claims that the People’s National Movement (PNM) public servants were responsible for generating the problems which  parties  opposed to the PNM face when they come to power. 

The charge is that these public servants sabotage and block their path, preventing them from  delivering the promises which they had made to constituents. This in turn makes good “representation” difficult, if not impossible, which in turn makes it difficult  for them to do what is required to get a second term at the polls.

In his discourse on Indian Arrival Day, Sat Maharaj cited the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) experience  as an example.There were many reasons why the NAR failed.

Not surprisingly, prime minister Robinson blamed the weakened PNM for everything that went wrong. He initially believed that the PNM’s toxic hand was raised against him, and that the party which he had defeated at the polls would return  in disguise to strangle him  to death. 

He later came to believe otherwise, however. As Mr John Andrews, head of the Public  Service and his permanent secretary reflected in 1990, “The public servants  had come to understand how the PNM ministers liked to operate, so that when the new regime came, they didn’t change gear right away. They continued doing things the way they knew how. You got a new set of people coming in who wanted to change everything as quickly and as drastically as they could. The public service could not have made that transition as quickly as the new directorate would have liked. Some people concluded that that  was obstruction and sabotage, but I wouldn’t say so. It was the perception of a few.”

There were other factors. One was the economic crisis which the country was then experiencing. The treasury was said to be empty. Public servants felt that the new government was  experimenting with policy, and were making a mess. They had to be made to understand the difference between “voodoo” economics and Keynesian economics. It’s also worth noting that only two ministers had had any previous Cabinet experience. They were green.

Ken Gordon, minister of  trade, reflected that there was no formal hand-over between incoming and outgoing ministers. The new ministers were not briefed. He was of the view that such meetings should be made mandatory and routine. 

Robinson came to better understand the nature of the problem. As he wrote, “Consider a situation where a new minister, after the trauma of the general election, walks into a ministry where he knows no one, is assigned a confidential secretary about whom he knows nothing, is given no information about staff, previous activities in the ministry, sees no ministerial files or guidelines of any kind, but is expected to function with the given apparatus quickly and with maximum capacity.”

Confusion was inevitable.

Another problem which generated confusion was that rival groups do not always know who in the ministry belongs to which tribe. They make an assumption that the incumbent  belongs to the losing group and was thus hostile to the incoming group. Problems quickly arise with respect to trust and confidentiality since no one knows who is whom except if ethnicity is used as a marker for restocking which may not always be accurate. The  lack of functional clarity which exists between ministers and public servants also presents a problem. The permanent secretary is the ministry’s administrative and accounting head and as his “letter of appointment” admonishes him/her, he/she is responsible for ensuring that financial considerations are taken into account at all stages by the minister. 

He is also advised that in framing and reaching decisions of policy and in their execution, finance  and administration are not separate.

No funds should be disbursed without authorisation since he/she is personally liable for unauthorised spending funds. In effect, the ministry is co-managed by the minister and the permanent secretary.

It is also worth noting that if a minister insists on adhering to his position, the public officer should “accept it”, in which case he should support his defence of the action taken and place on record his/her disagreement of any decision which he/she may find difficulty in defending as a measure of prudent administration before the Public Accounts Committee. The officer must not only set out his objection to the expenditure, and his/her grounds  for it, in writing, but  he/she should only make the payment upon a written instruction from his/her minister overruling the objection. Clearly, the arrangement requires compatibility and a disposition to respect boundaries. Many new ministers do not want to respect boundaries. 

When we look at what transpired between the NAR and  the PNM, there is no evidence whatsoever that the PNM played  any role in bringing down Mr Robinson. The working class harassed his Government mainly because the latter was cutting public sector wages and benefits and cost of living allowances.  In sum, the NAR was a casualty of the economic crisis which brought SOPO into the streets of Port of Spain and tempted Abu Bakr to storm Parliament. As  in all things, what one identifies as the cause of a problem depends on one’s angle of vision.

The current Minister of Public Utilities  seems partial to one angle of vision. 

As Mrs Seepersad-Bachan observed, “The Public Service has  bureaucratic processes that are  no longer relevant to the 21st century. Many have tried at great national expense to drag our Public Service into the post Jurassic age, but without much success so far.”

Remarkably, many of these processes are virtually  the same as those identified by J O’Neil Lewis in 1964 when he wrote his seminal “Report of the Working Party on the Role and Status of the Civil Service in the Age of Independence”.

The bottom line, however, is that it is unwise and unproductive to scapegoat an entire ethnic community for problems that are much more complex. I am not aware that Mr Panday had any abiding problems with the Public Service and that he ever had to remind them that none who crossed him would remain unscathed. In the end, Panday was brought down by his own ministers and not the “pseudo racists” in the Public Service.


(This column was written 

before seeing the statement made by the 17 senior public 

servants which appeared in the print media on Friday past.) 

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