The Handbook of Jamaica was a guardian of the constitution

Lance Neita

Saturday, March 19, 2016

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House cleaning has already begun in the government agencies and public bodies. By house cleaning I mean the inevitable removal and replacement of key people who are perceived as stout supporters of the previous Government and who were appointed based solely on their party affiliation.

The practice is that at a change of Government all official board and committee members should offer their resignations in order to allow the incoming Administration the opportunity to recommend or appoint their own selectees for the posts.

This affords a comfort zone for the new minister, where he or she can be satisfied that the policies of the new Administration will be carried out according to the minister’s plans, goals and objectives.

In some instances the entire board is reappointed so long as it is perceived that, according to its record of performance, it carried out its duties efficiently, with objectivity and free of political bias.

Unfortunately, this is not, and has not been the norm. There are too many organisations that have had boards appointed subject to the whims and fancies of party and personal ministerial bias.

So, in comes the vacuum cleaner with the removal of one set of party supporters being replaced by another set of party supporters. This practice is, of course, useless and non-productive. Nevertheless, it is inevitable if, on coming into office, the new minister finds that the deck is stacked against him or her with multiple boards and committees manned by active and non-cooperative supporters of the previous Government.

As the new Government scrutinises the list of board members and statutory appointees, it is a given that some personnel changes will be made in the interest of ensuring support for new policies. This should not be so. The constitution is framed to explicitly allow civil and judicial administration to function independent of partisanship. The presumption is that public servants who are paid out of the public purse must excuse themselves from any form of political partisanship in carrying out their duties. The political neutrality of the civil service should never be questioned. Unfortunately our modern-day politicians don’t seem to realise the value of the traditions of impartiality and objectivity which were once the heart and core of the service.

The official
Handbook of Jamaica, which used to be published annually by the
Jamaica Information Service, is now out of print. It was an admirable publication which listed the laws and constitution, and all historical, statistical and general information obtained from official and other reliable records pertaining to the current year. As such it used to be regarded as a guardian and repository of the constitution.

It provided comprehensive and detailed information on all government departments, statutory bodies, public and semi-public agencies. It went further to detail the names of office holders, salary, date of appointment, and the responsibilities of every public servant occupying whatever position.

By making this information available to the public, the handbook provided a kind of insurance against any covert political intervention in the civil service.

It also gave a comprehensive picture of the broad areas of responsibility of each ministry, and was an eye-opener for those of us who tend to think of a ministership as a reward for political service. When a politician takes over a ministry he has an awesome role to play as a director of large outreach programmes, much larger than what many corporate directors have to deal with in the private sector.

For example, the Ministry of Agriculture as portrayed in the handbook, and starting with the permanent secretary, includes accountants, technical officers, extension service agencies, an army of agricultural officers, nutritionists, plant protection officers, veterinarians, animal husbandry staff, agronomists, works overseers, laboratory assistants, fisheries officers, and education and training agencies. The portfolio also lists officers and personnel in the Irrigation Schemes, 4-H, land valuation boards, agricultural credit boards, co-operative departments, lands, survey departments, as well as the titles offices.

This is a huge area to cover. We can easily see how tempting it is to plant party faithfuls and reap the low-hanging fruits of political support when the right time comes. And not necessarily, I hasten to say, in this particular ministry.

It wasn’t always so. There was a time when government and staffing appointments were made based largely on qualifications and job credentials. Take for example the appointments to the diplomatic service, especially for overseas posts.

Recall that in 1962 Their Excellencies H L Lindo, High Commissioner to the United Kingdom; E A Maynier, High Commissioner to Canada; Sir Neville Ashenheim, Ambassador to Washington; E R Richardson, permanent representative to the United Nations; and Keith Johnson, Consul General in the Office of the Consulate, New York, were selected either from the diplomatic service or the private sector. To my knowledge, none of them ever appeared on a political platform or ran for political office.

Subsequent to that era we have seen a series of ambassadorial appointments, the majority of whom have been men and women of excellence and integrity, who have nevertheless been appointed against a background of their services to the particular party in power.

Interesting to note that in 1962 (check the Handbook), the Office of the Prime Minister had a staff limited to a permanent secretary, a personal assistant, a principal assistant secretary and assistant secretary, supported by a secretarial and stenography staff of eight.

The main criteria used by Sir Alexander Bustamante in those days was his confidence in the persons whom he wished to work with him, regardless of their political affiliation. A prime example of this was his relationship with James (Jimmy) Lloyd, who was the permanent secretary in the prime minister’s office. From 1945 to 1949 Lloyd’s brother, Dr Ivan Lloyd, was the Leader of the PNP’s five-man Opposition in the House of Representatives. JLP party colleagues no doubt urged Busta to have nothing to do with Ivan Lloyd’s brother. Yet there developed the closest relationship and confidence between Busta and Jimmy Lloyd during the entire period of Busta’s prime ministership.

This carried over into Donald Sangster’s and Hugh Shearer’s times as Prime Minister when Lloyd travelled often with the JLP prime ministers as close advisor on overseas trips. Busta, Sangster, and Shearer retained other prominent PNP supporters as top civil servants and confidants.

The prime minister’s press officer who spanned both the JLP and PNP regimes of the 60s and 70s was a strong PNP supporter. Shearer would smile when introducing him thus: "This is my good friend so-and-so who is a damn comrade but has my complete confidence."

A few other outstanding civil servants have served with distinction regardless of party affiliation, Dr Carlton Davis’s contribution being a supreme example of this kind of independent and objective approach.

So let the spring cleaning commence and let heads roll where they should, but no need for panic. Minister Daryl Vaz set the right tone when he assured JAMPRO officials that the new board which he will appoint will not necessarily be large in number, but agile and efficient. Local Government Minister Desmond McKenzie has assured that there will be some measure of continuity through the retention of key members of the previous board of the National Solid Waste Management Authority. We must avoid any resemblance to the infamous ‘Pickersgill Committee’ of the 1970s that investigated and hand-picked party faithfuls for government posts.

And certainly, government board members who left their offices to campaign for the party of their choice have left themselves with little wiggle room. I share the hope that the new government will refer to the guide published under the Corporate Governance Framework for Public Bodies in Jamaica, and appoint persons based on competence, professional abilities, and who are accountable.

Alphabet soup

A reader, Hermione McKenzie, has asked me to publish the remainder of the Slave alphabet which was included in an article several weeks ago. Here goes, "S is for snake, him crawl in a grass, T is for Toad, so farra’ard an’ fas. U is for Uncle, bwoy yu tell him howdee, V is for Vervine, make very good tea. W, X, Y. Hi! I really forget, Z is for Zebedee, mending his net."

Lance Neita is a community and public relations writer and consultant. Send comments to the Observer or

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