Friday, December 15, 2017

Seeking public servants, insulated yet efficient

Express editorial logo204

Mark Fraser

Long a sore point with trade unions, contract work in the public sector this week found a presumably influential critic in Industrial Court president Deborah Thomas-Felix. 

“In recent decades we have been witnessing a surge of what is referred to as ‘privatising the public service’,” Thomas-Felix said at the opening of the court on Monday. “This trend is characterised by what appears to be a proliferation of fixed-term contracts to people who are not considered to be government employees and who do not enjoy job security.” 

Now, contrary to propaganda propagated mainly by trade unio­nists, privatisation is not always a bad thing. One rationale for contract employment in the public service was to increase efficiency by hiring people who did not have the so-called public service mentality—this, according to received wisdom spread mainly by the private sector, being defined as an attitude which is lazy, inefficient and unhelpful. The formation of State enterprises which bypassed civil service duties was also based on the need to get things done in a timely manner.

But, politicians being politicians, public service contract employment became another avenue to give jobs to supporters, as well as to undermine civil servants. This might even have been deliberate stra­tegy by various political administrations because an ineffectual civil service can serve the goals of politicians, since Government ministers can then bypass regulations more easily even as the ministers’ narrow political goals harm the society.


Development, after all, is impossible without a civil service bureaucracy which is not only efficient, but also shielded from political influence. Politicians come and go and, whatever policy changes they may introduce, continuity between administrations is required for the country to function. Judge Thomas-Felix, referencing cases brought before the Industrial Court, noted: “When the contracts come to an end six months or a year later, there is a void, and the department now has to get someone, in most cases on a new contract. This is a continuous process that is disruptive, undermines the building of strong, effective teams and could adversely affect the productivity of the department.”

On Monday, the Industrial Court president was able to address Labour Minister Errol McLeod directly, seeking his intervention to stop this undermining of the service. As a former unionist, Mr McLeod’s bias may be to restore the old system wherein it was virtually impossible to fire even the lowliest and most incompetent public servant. Now that he has sat on the other side as a Government minister, however, Mr McLeod hopefully sees the value of a system which insulates public servants from politics but which does not incentivise inefficiency.

This, however, is a challenge which no politician, technocrat or bureaucrat has yet solved.