A worrying trend in political governance

Raulston Nembhard

Saturday, July 14, 2012    

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I have been willing to cut the prime minister some slack and to take her at her word when she said in her inaugural address that her government would be committed to transparency, openness and what I perceived to be a new paradigm of governance. This new paradigm would be dressed in a garment of respect for people, a commitment to their right to know and taking them into her confidence as she and her team conduct the business of government. Recently, I have been struggling against some severe headwinds in being optimistic in my assessment of her administration. One could forgive the petulance enshrined in the flag fiasco, the missteps in the planning of the Jamaica 50 celebrations and even the recent contretemps in Parliament with the ensuing vapid apologies. But the recent revelations concerning the government's appointment of a plethora of consultants, advisers and special assistants have placed in sharp relief a worrying trend in PNP governance that cannot be ignored.

An argument advanced to support these appointments is that what is happening reflects of what has been done in the past. It should be clear to the sensible person that because something was done in the past by one administration does not mean that it should continue in the present, or worse, be done in the future. If it was a wrong practice then, it is a wrong practice now, and two wrongs do not make a right. What I find in the continuance of this practice is a violation of the prime minister's own commitment to a new paradigm of governance, a paradigm that would have dictated that if people were to be given consultancies and cushy jobs in the civil service, you would look for the best talents in the country instead of rewarding party supporters who may or may not have the requisite expertise to serve the people well. It was highly disappointing when the prime minister continued the longstanding practice of appointing prominent party functionaries to prominent boards. The NHT, UDC, JUTC come readily to mind. One may forgive the appointment of advisers and consultants with whom one may feel comfortable, but why subject appointments to public bodies to the same set of criteria when there are far greater talents and expertise available in the nation and the diaspora? It would be a pleasant surprise were a PNP government to appoint a well known JLP operative to the UDC, for example, and to see the JLP in a subsequent administration appointing a PNP operative to run the NHT. Until hell freezes over, you bellow. And yet it is this paradigm shift that will move us towards political maturity and a better way of life and living for our people. It is in this light that the dismissal of the Teachers' Service Commission was despicable. Mr Thwaites' apology and attempt at damage control rang hollow, for precisely the reason that this was not a surprising development. It was par for the course; it is what we have come to expect from politicians who wallow in a pigsty of hyper-partisan loyalty and ideology. And this is regrettable on the part of Mr Thwaites for he is one politician who has brought a refreshing sense to Parliament with his candour and often forthrightness.

It is not that those who are given jobs as consultants, advisers and special assistants cannot function well in these capacities. The worrying trend is the continuance of a philosophy of governance that has not served our country well and which has in fact been a major factor in our underdevelopment. We cannot interrupt and discard the good work of people on the basis of party loyalty or on the idiosyncrasy of a minister whose sense of inferiority or fragile ego is threatened by a civil servant who is comfortable in his or her skin and whose loyalty is to Jamaica and not a political party. To discard such good work is nothing short of a criminal act, because it sets back the progress of the country in very fundamental ways. The prime minister speaks loudly of the need for leaders to inspire confidence in the populace, yet she in whom "people power" has been invested, is pursuing with alacrity the rewarding of loyalty, having ridden to triumph on a crest of partisan popularity.

I can understand why new administrations are given the leverage to hire consultants and advisers. Often these functionaries are plucked from the bowels of the political party in an attempt to reward loyalty and service in the run-up to a general election. The tendency is to go overboard with these appointments, overlapping with functions already being performed by civil servants, and not having much to do but to wear a title and sometimes operating with the kind of hubris that frustrates more than it enlightens. Often, it is not clear to whom these advisers are answerable. What, for example, is the relationship between these consultants and advisers and the members of the civil service with whom they should interface? Are they answerable to the permanent secretaries in the ministries in which they work when they are told that they are to report directly to the minister or junior minister? What jurisdiction does the permanent secretary exercise over the work they perform and to whose scrutiny should they really be subject? Perhaps an even more telling question to ask is why not train civil servants or help them to upgrade their skills that they can really do the work for which they are being paid? It is time that the Jamaica Civil Service Association become more strident in their critique of these appointments which happen in both parties and to ascertain the ways in which they undermine the functions of civil servants and hinder personnel development. At the very least, the nation is owed an explanation of the job descriptions of these consultants and advisers. Do I smell a whiff of the "fat cat scandal" under a previous PNP administration? Dr Phillips, you were right: it makes no sense to raid an empty cupboard or break into an empty shop!





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