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Building a viable and truly independent civil service

Dr Raulston Nembhard
Saturday, July 21, 2012

Since the government has largely bungled the Jamaica 50 celebrations, other groups in the society seem to have taken a lethargic approach to the event. The late involvement of the schools in the Independence celebrations is just one symptom of the lethargy and confusion that has attended the planning for this important milestone in the nation's history. Not seen much, if at all, on the radar screen of celebrations is the Jamaica Civil Service, one of the most important legacies that was bequeathed to us by Britain.

One would have liked to see a robust discussion on the role of the civil service in the building of an independent Jamaica over the past 50 years and a vision of its contribution to the next 50. Underpinning this discussion would be reflection on a relevant philosophy of public administration, the de-politicisation of the civil service and reflection on the crisis of identity that the body faces in the evolution of a vibrant and truly independent service that can attend to the needs of a modern Jamaica. My disappointment is that to the best of my knowledge there has not been this debate or discussion. The silence of the civil service in these celebrations is deafening and ought to concern those of us who are interested in seeing a truly independent and vigorous civil service.

Let us be clear. The role of the civil service as a function of public administration over the past 50 years of our Independence has not been stellar. When I speak of the civil service here my reference is largely to public servants who come under the umbrella of the Jamaica Civil Service Association (JCSA). There are other groups such as the teachers and the police who have direct representation of their interests through their own independent bodies who may or may not consider themselves under the jurisdiction of the JCSA. Whatever the case, it would seem prudent that as public servants themselves there would be a coordination of activities that would involve the discussions mentioned above and charting a way forward. Certainly, all groups of employees work for the government and people of Jamaica and there are commonalities of interest around which they ought to coalesce to better serve the people. This should not happen only when there is a demand for wage increase. It should be essential to their raison d'etre as an organisation.

One of the interests they should pursue is the de-politicisation of the civil service. Curse them as the wicked colonialists if you wish, but one thing you have to say of the British is that they bequeathed to Jamaica a robust, functioning civil service. If the truth be told and acknowledged, we have done poorly in the management of this legacy. And the poverty of good management can be seen in the way successive governments have either treated the civil service as an arm of their political party or have tried to make civil servants subservient to their wider political interests. For years the Constabulary Force suffered from the tentacled grip that the political directorate had over it. It is just in recent times that the force is able to breathe a greater air of independence because of the eminent leadership being given by the present commissioner of police. The 1970s into the 1980s were the most glaring periods where the civil service was virtually indistinguishable from the political directorate of the day. Civil servants either toed the line or got summarily dismissed, or in extreme cases were killed in the line of duty like the brave Ted Ogilvie.

The sad thing is that today nothing much has changed. We still have a civil service that is subservient to political interests. You would be hard put to find a civil servant in these days of job scarcity standing up to a politician and speaking his or her mind about a matter. Many civil servants have been known to cringe to their political bosses if not demonstrating a certain incontinence in the seat of the pants when they had to face the bruising demands of a powerful minister or high political operative. The penchant of politicians is to dictate to civil servants and to make life difficult for them when they do not bend to their dictates. These are the challenges that you would expect the civil service to be wrestling with in our 50th year because they speak to the very ethos and identity of the group. It is not just about holding a job or "eating a food". It has to be an organisation that stands as a bulwark against corruption at all times and is prepared to call out the corrupt among the political directorate who would want to abuse privilege.

If the civil service is to be the kind of body of which we can be proud, its leadership must demonstrate to the people of Jamaica that it is standing up to this kind of abuse. They must seek to strengthen their arm against corrupting influences within their ranks and let the people have confidence that they really understand their role as independent agents for a progressive Jamaica. They must begin to push back against political operatives of every stripe that would force them to do things in the interest of a political party which may not be in the interest of the nation. One would have hoped that they would have taken the opportunity afforded by the celebration of this 50th year to address these issues seriously. Alas, we have not seen it, but it certainly is not late after the celebrations to do so.


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