Columns

The folly of working behind the scenes

Chris Burns

Monday, August 27, 2012    

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IT is easy to tell when someone is skylarking. Some "skylarkers" invariably justify their inaction or idleness by quoting the same-old-same-old, "We are working behind the scenes" crap, hoping others would believe that their absence and silence are due to heavy involvement in noble and productive endeavours. Yet, individuals are not the only ones who do this; governments, non-governmental organisations, civic groups and corporate boards are famous for using the phrase as a form of appeasement to their various "publics", knowing full that nothing is happening.

Just last week, my favourite mayor, Angela Brown Burke, pooh-poohed criticisms that the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation has become noticeably "quiet" since she assumed the chairmanship of the KSAC in April. In dismissing the observations, Mayor "Brown Burke responded: "I'm one of those persons who like to talk about things when they are almost done because there has been so much talk and so many announcements that people have become cynical. Part of what I want to do is the behind-the-scenes work and talk with our partners... to have the kind of discussions that get us somewhere," she declared.

Mind you, this is the same mayor who declared war on the rats of Kingston and St Andrew and vowed to join forces with the various stakeholders to destroy the burgeoning "rattus-rattus" population that threatened to overtake the capital city and drive everybody scampering for cover. What has become of those "behind-the-scenes" rat efforts? Are there still not rats at every bend? Well, we need better behind-the-scenes leadership. Mayor Brown-Burke may want to quit working behind the scenes because the rats have claimed new territory and are busy creating additional scenes, most of which are either in front of the Mayor's Parlour or under councillors' desks.

One hopes Mayor Brown Burke will not continue in the same vein during the current hurricane season, but will lead from the front and make the KSAC's efforts, plans and programmes visible for all to scrutinise, criticise and modify where feasible. It was brutally ironic that the mayor underscored the principles enshrined in participatory and collaborative governance, but defended the practice of working behind the scenes. In this context, working behind the scenes implies a weird kind of secrecy and a particular mode of operation that is restricted to a handful of specially selected individuals who are responsible for operationalising without inclusion of, or consultation with the people who

are likely to suffer the greatest inconveniences.

However, to Mayor Brown Burke's credit, she did cite "town hall meetings" as an avenue she has been using to involve citizen participation in council business. This is a good approach to consultative governance I wish others would follow. But my understanding of the dissatisfaction with the current leadership is that people are not necessarily complaining about "talk" per se. They are indignant about the slow pace of implementation, lack of action and the apparent leadership vacuum that have been evident over the last few months. Moreover, although we know that Mayor Brown Burke's predecessor constructed a very busy public relations machine, hardly anyone could accuse former KSAC mayor, Desmond McKenzie, of being silent or missing in action. He definitely did little work behind the scenes - take that for what it's worth.

It is not only Mayor Brown Burke who has absolute exclusivity on the phrase. Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller is also wont to declare at every turn, that she is "working behind the scenes." Still, central government is being criticised for the lack of visibility of the prime minister.

It would be an exercise in futility to try to persuade anyone into believing that their concerns about these issues are illegitimate or precipitate because the entire legislative and executive branches of government and the people who staff them are busy behind the scenes. Certainly not so, when the prime minister and those responsible for managing her press availability appear hell-bent on keeping her away from the press. Now, that would be blatantly "pig-headed" because, whatever the prime minister's perceived shortcomings, the voters have already discounted them.

There is no sense in shielding her from a mostly accommodating press, and there are no reasons why she cannot step out of her shell, frame and then just "talk di tings dem", even as she articulates her administration's vision for Jamaica. Our prime minister cannot continue to lead from behind, neither can she continue to "wash her hands" of her ministers' stewardship of the various departments that fall under their purview and direction. To be telling people: "Oh, the administration that I lead is busy working behind the scenes," without anything tangible to show for it and expect them to grab the bag of wind, would be tantamount to contempt.

No business can survive on the basis of "we are working behind the scenes"; not even those which are in the business of working behind the scenes could survive without showing results. In addition, although "talk is cheap", it is better to keep the citizens abreast of matters that are likely to affect their lives and livelihood.

As chief communicator, chief servant, chief comforter, chief motivator and chief mobiliser, the incumbent prime minister is found wanting because she is disengaged and too selective in her pronouncements. It seems to me that she has become more of a ceremonial prime minister - one who cuts ribbons and delivers speeches, but less of the transformational, motivational, effective and proactive leader she could become. But she may just be "working behind the scenes" on this one. Who knows?

Burnscg@aol.com

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