Friday, December 15, 2017

Service commissions overhaul overdue


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The Teaching Service Commission has let the post of Chief Education Officer remain unfilled for several months now. The Police Service Commission had recommended golden handshakes for Canadians Dwayne Gibbs and Jack Ewatski upon their resignations as Police Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner. And the Public Service Commission has now been handed the responsibility for investigating and taking disciplinary action over the mix-up by Education Ministry officials who communicated the wrong CSEC student's name for the 2012 President's Medal.

With these three entities in the forefront of public attention over such varied issues, questions necessarily arise about the relevance today of the Constitution which provides the commissions' reason for being. Do they actually or even potentially have the capacity to carry out their function, given that this was prescribed at Independence 50 years ago? Nor do such questions end with these particular commissions, whose roles are primarily bureaucratic. With the Integrity Commission always also in the public eye in questionable circumstances, and ongoing political issues of discrimination bypassing the Equal Opportunities Commission, the fundamental question is whether these entities are fulfilling their core purpose separating politicians' partisan influence from the functions of a State mandated to serve all citizens impartially.

This wasn't the case even from the start, during the heyday of Dr Eric Williams. With a Public Service largely staffed by persons who, tacitly or otherwise, supported the PNM and its overall goals, niceties about regulations were often overlooked on a Government minister's say so. Indeed, only a few years ago, when a court decision ruled that the Prime Minister had no legal authority to veto the promotion of a public servant, the Service Commission chairman's "defence" was that things had always been done that way.

But, in 21st century Trinidad and Tobago with its new demography and a political ethos less accommodating to maximum leaders, such practices are still wrong and now unacceptable. Given this, all eyes should initially turn to Legal Affairs Minister Prakash Ramadhar, long entrusted with responsibility for advancing constitutional reform. The Minister, who is also the Congress of the People leader, owes it to the country to give a timely update on his progress in this increasingly sore area of public affairs that of modernising the Trinidad and Tobago Constitution.

But that is only the starting point. Changes in both culture and technical systems have to occur before the service commissions meet the professional standards required of a modern bureaucracy. But the core principles which should inform both constitutional and bureaucratic updating haven't changed in 50 years: transparency; accountability; and, most important of all, limits to politicians' power.

This is the only way to create the meritocracy which is the foundation of national development.