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Sat Maharaj and the Public Service

By Selwyn Ryan

 The Secretary General of the Maha Sabha recently made certain windy allegations about the bureaucratic behaviour of PNM public servants.  My belief is that the remarks were knowingly, falsely, and deliberately made to achieve a certain perverse effect. The issue which Maharaj sought to deal with  was state failure. The reasons thereof of course vary, and are certainly not peculiar to Trinidad and Tobago to which we confine our remarks in this column.

 Why do so many of our governments fail, virtually overnight? Why is the Partnership floundering?  Is it because of the quality and limitations of the  leaders with whom we have had to deal? Is ethnicity a significant variable? 

Maharaj argues that the reasons for collapse are simple to identify. His villain in the woodpile is the PNM. In his view, it is the PNM  public servant who  deliberately  conspires to make newly-elected governments—from the NAR to the Partnership-unviable. 

“Any government that gets into office for the full five years can’t do anything because the civil servants box you in. They have been planted there. Robinson could not last more than five years. Panday could not last more than five years because you’ve got to get past the civil servants who have been planted there by the PNM...So I am saying that this Government must get its second  five-year term (in order) to properly deliver. I invite you to campaign and to canvass. It is our right.”

Sat had found a scapegoat to explain Partnership failure which also serves as a point of muster for the struggle ahead.

As he tells his votaries, the battle has just begun to get what is hers and theirs by right, viz, a second term. Sat does not tell us who in the PNM orchestrates these sinister planting exercises.

The relationship between civil servants and ministers  has been one of the constants rooted in our political history. 

That there are more persons of Afro descent than Indos in the public service is of course an established fact. Colonialism and the resultant social dynamics of the time prescribed that Afros went into the public  sector while Indos went into the private sector, particularly in family businesses. 

The patterns and proportions are however changing rapidly in response to what is taking place in the schools and the economy. There is in fact a silent struggle raging over the bureaucratic landscape in respect of this issue. There are however ethnic entrepreneurs who are seeking to accelerate the process, and to profit politically and economically by doing so. Sat is the secular archbishop of the movement. He has acolytes in the Cabinet and elsewhere, who view every decision or resource allocation in terms of how many Indians are recruited, promoted, or are successful in winning a tender.

As a social scientist, I understand what is taking place. Sat’s spin is however perverse. What is happening  now, in his view, is that Afro public servants are  deliberately preventing Indos from rising, causing them to postpone or abort projects,  which in turn contrives to prevent them from winning a second term. Is this Sat’s way of saying that Kamla’s team should be allowed an automatic “follow on” to use a cricket term?

All our governments have had problems dealing with established public servants. Many PNM ministers are known to have   difficulties working with certain public servants. Some do not even speak to each other and special advisers had to be brought in to help them.    

These difficulties are however readily explained. For one thing, new ministers  experience “running  in” problems simply because they are new and inexperienced. They do not understand the folkways of the bureaucracy. They assume that their wish is everyone’s command. Such problems  arise regardless of the ethnicity of the minister or public servant who might himself have just been assigned. 

Generally speaking, many public servants believe that their ministers  are lacking in knowledge about bureaucratic procedures. Their expertise is in getting votes.   

In the course of interviewing officials and public servants for this column, the following assertions were made. There is general agreement that it is not true, as some ministers believe, that  most black public servants are lazy, ill-disciplined, or chronic low producers. It was also untrue to say that  there is a PNM cabal or mafia which consciously or unconsciously conspire to frustrate the implementation of Partnership projects. 

Many civil servants are  indeed angry and turned off because they believe they are victims of ethnic foul play.They have either been bypassed to make room for others with weaker credentials (let’s call this the Reshmi syndrome)  or are asked to do tasks  that others should be doing given the dynamics of the organisation. Generally, it is fair to say that many public servants believe that most UNC bosses or ministers have an ethnic agenda. Their  role at meetings, whether in the cabinet or in the  board room is to invigilate the number of Indians being recruited or promoted. Lists are often gerrymandered or rigged to secure desired outcomes. It is also alleged many appointments are made with little regard for credentials or competence. Many appointees are friends, cronies, kin and neighbours who cannot perform the jobs advertised, but secure them nevertheless.

Other reasons were advanced for systemic conflicts between ministers and public servants. Among the most serious is that the present bunch of ministers and board chairmen want to break procurement rules with impunity. They are impatient and want permanent secretaries to use shortcuts to achieve their personal or corporate objectives, bypassing rules in respect or tendering, acquiring and using vehicles. Some public servants oblige out of a sense of ethnic reciprocity, obedience to bosses, while others insist on sticking to the rules. \

The bottom line is that senior public servants, advisers and ministers live in a world which is controversy-ridden. The public service needs a brain, a guiding hand, vision and much else which they are not now receiving.

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