•Simon is a young Bahamian with things on his mind who wishes to remain anonymous. His column 'Front Porch' is published every Tuesday in the Nassau Guardian. He can be reached at [email protected]
Pushing an important initiative through the Bahamian civil service usually comes fairly easily. Take, for example, the highly complex issue of the refurbishment of the bathrooms at the then Nassau International Airport.
It only took many years and frequent flyer miles, ceaseless complaining and inconvenience, corroding plumbing and foul odors, broken sinks and tiles, negative press reports, national outrage and international embarrassment to get authorities to clean up their act regarding these lavatories.
In the meantime the airport was renamed and successive governments came and went before the country eventually figured out who had the authority and responsibility to purchase new tiles and change the commodes.
Now for the easy part: reforming the civil service.
By design, the civil service is a conserving and cautionary bureaucracy. It preserves an institutional memory that advises the government-of the-day on the laws and customs which help to sustain the state.
It helps to ensure that the country does not perpetually reinvent the proverbial wheel. Politicians are quite good at reinventing the wheel at considerable expense to taxpayers and common sense.
The public service helps to provide the restraint without which the country would flounder. This essential function was succinctly expressed by a public officer, who once boasted to me: “We hold the country!”
His declaration has many meanings. Public officers, guided by General Orders, help the country’s centre to hold by ensuring that things don’t fall apart and that general order is maintained.
Power doesn’t only tend to corrupt politicians. It tends to corrupt us all when given greater responsibilities and privileges – including civil servants.
This is why all power needs to be balanced and restrained, made transparent and held accountable and dutifully respected and when necessary decisively challenged.
This is not a theoretical matter for politicians. They regularly face elections, parliamentary debates, press scrutiny and constituents. If civil servants endured the klieg lights of scrutiny that politicians do they might be more responsive.
Much of the public service is riddled with extraordinary inefficiency and indifference. The let’s-scratch-each-others-back culture produces scores of inflated annual confidential reports.
The needlessly secretive and bureaucratic culture that pervades the service can produce comical ends. Some years ago I asked a public officer for some information. He advised me to write the Permanent Secretary who would then write to instruct him to write me and forward the information.
Thankfully, I was able to short circuit this probably month long process by finding the document on the Internet in five minutes. Many public officers often act as if requests for general information are the same as asking for the codes to the Central Bank vault.
Yes, the civil service often holds the country -- they often hold it back. Politicians are not blameless. The public service is too often an employment and electoral scheme cum welfare programme. Moreover political meddling all too often distorts the system.
To be sure, there are many capable public servants who perform admirably, often at personal sacrifice, amidst frustrating odds, and with limited resources, including competent people, facilities, dollars, and gratitude.
Many of the more capable and gifted senior officers are vexed by a lack of better national planning which would give them a greater sense of mission, direction and professional fulfillment.
The private sector is also faced with limited managerial talent and poor service. But you can usually switch from one business to another. Not so with government services where your tax dollars pays for that unanswered phone line which is on a perpetual coffee or tea break.
The civil service is populated by too many political favourites lacking in competence, careerists lacking in a broader national vision, technicians masquerading as administrators, and insecure micro-managers and bean counters lacking in broader leadership skills.
For the most part our civil service lacks the entrepreneurial energy needed to create a more innovative public service. Scores of senior administrators know how to spend money. Precious few know how to make money or appreciate how their delays cost others millions every year.
Further, rather than create greater efficiencies, boost productivity, and rationalize and justify their cost structures, most senior public officers reflexively call for more money from the public purse.
Most senior officers still don’t understand the Internet. They view it as a one way communications device that dispenses information rather than as a two way communications channel that can dramatically improve their service to the public.
Yet the public service is representative of a broader crisis: our national conceit that once we have earned a college or university degree we are set for life.
Former Public Service Minister Fred Mitchell got it right when he insisted that reform is an ongoing process -- not a periodic occurrence. While General Orders needs to be modernized, this will have a limited impact absent a more compelling programme of constant retraining.
Singapore has one of the more efficient and creative public service cultures in the world. Like the Bahamas, the Government of Singapore is that country’s largest employer.
Large government bureaucracies are supposedly a burden when it comes to national development. How then does Singapore -- a country committed to free enterprise -- manage to maintain a large public service that is highly effective and not an economic drag?
It starts with a mind-set as articulated by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong who insists that Singapore’s public service “…is our most sustainable competitive advantage. The investments in Singapore’s future are only realisable with a first-class public service.”
The lesson: a country with few natural resources and less land and sea mass than the Bahamas has helped to leverage its limited resources by investing heavily in what’s often called – human capital.
But even with its well trained civil service, Singapore knows it cannot rest on its laurels. Accordingly, they have created an extraordinary programme of life-long learning and professional development for its public servants.
In Singapore advancement, merit pay and pension benefits flow from your commitment to professional growth and performance. The critics will say: such a system that rewards accomplishment and disfavours slackness will never work in the Bahamas.
Former Singaporean Prime Minister and wise-man Lee Kwan Yew encountered the same criticism when he became his country’s pre-independence leader in 1959 amidst a largely uneducated populace, mass poverty, ethnic conflict and national security threats.
He was warned that his fellow-citizens were too lazy, too backward, too uneducated, too unmotivated, and too whatever. His gamble was simple: he had no choice but to invest in the only resource at his disposal – his fellow citizens.