The Art Of ‘yes, Minister’

P. A. MORRIS Explores The Source Of Civil Service Weakness

The new Head of the Public Service and Permanent Secretary to the Prime Minister, Reynold Cooper, right, takes a twirl on the floor at a luncheon in his honour at the Diplomatic Centre, St Ann’s, to celebrate his appointment last month. —Photo: MICHEAL BRUCE
For many years I have been promising to write this article. Part of my foot-dragging stems from a reluctance to state as fact things that I have only been told. This is a sure sign that someone else, closer to the facts, should be writing this. Nonetheless, I have decided to write this essay in the hope of putting my two cents into stimulating a much-needed national conversation, whether in the form of agreement or challenge. My hope is that such a conversation could encourage the design of a roadmap for leading us out of the trap of structural problems.
One of our most pressing problems of governance resides in the weakness of our Civil Service, especially at the top.
For decades we have heard about plans and programmes for public sector reform and transformation, with large sums of money being allocated to the process. Always, the stated aim is to improve Public Service efficiency. But why is it inefficient? How did it become inefficient? Without an accurate understanding of the source and nature of the problem, effective prescription is impossible
So the first question is: Why is the Civil Service inefficient?
I submit that the reason is there are far too many senior civil servants who either cannot make decisions, or know how to avoid decision-making. To the second question of how it came to be this way, I suggest that this is largely an evolved response to four main factors.
I have dealt with the Service in both Jamaica and Barbados and, at least during the nineties, I found professionals who were assertive and seemed willing to take charge. A friend who grew up in the Jamaican Civil Service, and who now consults throughout the Caribbean, agrees. His view is that you get good old-fashioned comment and action everywhere except in Trinidad and in Antigua. Experience has led me to conclude that the problem lies not, or not solely, in the structure of the Service, but in the way it has evolved in Trinidad and Tobago.
The first factor in this unfortunate evolution has been the impact of politics. I have heard it said that the slide began the day that Eric Williams sidelined Eugenio Moore for making a decision. Others quote an incident where the then head of Town & Country Planning was asked by Dr Williams to give an opinion on a matter. She did. Dr Williams asked her to change her opinion, and she replied that she couldn’t change her opinion- that he could choose not to use her assessment, but that she could not change it. She then found herself in the cold – by-passed in everything. The incident taught an immediate lesson to other senior staff: the art of avoiding decision-making as a strategy for survival.
In true Darwinian fashion, some of those who knew how not to make a decision rose to the top. Others mastered a parallel art: that of reading the Minister’s mind, so that one avoids taking action on any issue until one is sure of the Minister’s reaction and approval.
Characterising the whole of the Service in this way may be an exaggeration, but I have had enough first-hand experience to conclude that these attitudes are far too prevalent.
The second factor is the impact of the establishment of the State Enterprises in the sixties and seventies. The introduction of these companies drained management expertise out of the Service, critically depleting its ranks. Then, in the seventies, came the oil boom with a range of opportunities for getting rich quick, especially in real estate. (I spent 1974, the year oil prices took a dramatic increase, in Canada. Before I left, land in Orange Grove was $1.00 per square foot, and had been that for ages. When I returned, it was $2.67, and rising daily!) Escalating inflation on one hand, and new business opportunities in the service sector, delivered a double blow to the Civil Service. Inflation led many civil servants into moonlighting, working second jobs as taxi drivers, salespeople, vendors etc. This was especially true in the Police Service, and it is one of the factors that changed many of our policemen and teachers from being professionals into job-holders. Add to this the numbers who elected to leave the Service altogether to start up businesses amid the petro-dollar boom.
The coming of the NAR in 1986 created a different problem. Driven by the PNM’s social policies and financed by the oil boom of the seventies, the State was everywhere in the economy, so that a change in government was bound to be traumatic. There was undoubtedly some politicization of parts of the Public Service and State agencies and companies, but there was, even more, an NAR perception of bias, in the Service, toward the PNM. One remembers the night of the NAR victory, December 16, 1986 when there were loud allegations of senior civil servants destroying files. It marked the start of a new and engaged hostility between the Civil and Political streams of authority.
In many ways it is unfortunate that we Trinidad and Tobago remained under one government – and our first independent one at that – for so long. One effect was that many of the NAR people came from the business sector. The Soviet Union had recently fallen, and I can remember the triumphalism which painted a broad brush across civil servants, university lecturers and others as professionals lacking initiative and drive. It is an instinct that has never died.
The third factor was thus the impact of a new political regime on the morale of an already weakened service.
The fourth factor was, and still is, discipline in the service. The Service Commission, which holds the responsibility for discipline, moves slowly, and when it does act, often deepens the perception that it does not encourage discipline. I have heard, for example, of a doctor on suspension with pay, who would drop in to gloat about his thriving private practice while getting a salary from the Government..
This question of discipline in the Service, and the manner in which procedures are implemented, is an area worthy of wide public debate.
These four factors have conspired to weaken our Service considerably. The responses, such as the creation of Special Purpose companies, have merely made matters worse by side-stepping and therefore exacerbating, the problem. Special Purpose companies go back at least to 1982, with the Hospital Management Company.
Another worrying development is the increasing executive role of Ministers: since the Service does not work, a “can-do” Minister takes charge of everything. The role of the Minister is to set policy. No Public Servant, in his capacity as such, should determine whether we build a road in Barrackpore before we fix a culvert in San Fernando. That is a political question. However, once the decision to build the road has been taken, and its budget fixed, it is the role of the Service to design and build, either using its own resources or those of contractors. What we see in Trinidad is Government Ministers becoming instant experts on just about everything.
There is a general lack of appreciation about the roles of Boards, and Board Chairmen, as against those of a CEO. We have had instances of Chairmen making decisions that are the province of the CEO. As an example, the Board of the Agricultural Development Bank sat, considered and decided where they should place funds, instead of asking the CEO for a review and a report. But the most worrying examples of all belong to the Board of our Nation, the Cabinet.

The Piarco Airport enquiry, for example, uncovered the fact that Minister John Humphrey chose the tiles for the airport. I can still see Minister Ganga Singh, in a hardhat, with the WASA engineer at his side, answering questions about the technicalities of repairing a major problem at the Arena dam. The news reporter does not have the sense to ask the expert at the Minister’s side, and the Minister does not understand his role enough to tell the reporter to talk to the expert for technical information. We could go on and on with examples of this kind, but they all point to one thing: we have the wrong relationship of Minister to Civil Servant. The media do not seem to understand this. They, and many politicians, have encouraged a Mr Fix-It, Know-It-All model of ministerial behaviour, with a concomitant growth in the numbers of ministers, and a decrease in the time spent on the development of coherent policies.
Until we understand these issues, our aspiration for an efficient, effective Civil Service will remain unrealised.

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