Fri | Nov 24, 2017

Editorial | Colin Bullock - loss and an example

Published:Friday | October 20, 2017 | 12:00 AM

We have twice, in recent weeks, commented on the passing of two talented and stalwart public servants - Herbert Walker and Gordon Wells - whose deaths appeared to have been little noticed by officialdom.

The response, or lack thereof, was unfortunate, for this newspaper insists that how Messrs Walker and Wells conducted themselves in various posts during their long careers has relevance in the context of the ongoing discussion about reforming the state bureaucracy to enhance efficiency and to make it more responsive to the things that drive investment, job creation, economic growth, and ultimately, national development.

Mr Walker and Mr Wells were skilled and competent. But important, too, they were of a generation of civil servants who, while respectful to their political bosses, displayed none of the obsequiousness that is all too common today in the face of ministerial overreach and expropriation of authority. They spoke truth to power and were clear about, and insisted on, the line of demarcation between the minister as the political executive and the permanent civil service - as the anecdote by the former prime minister, P.J. Patterson, about Mr Walker emphasised.

Mr Patterson had received his first ministerial assignment, and Mr Walker was his permanent secretary. "Tell me what you want done, and I will show you how to do it,' he remarked on my assumption of office," Mr Patterson recalled of their early encounter.

Colin Bullock, who died on Wednesday, was of a generation later. But he inherited the best traits of the type of public servant exemplified by the likes of Walker and Wells. Not least of these was integrity.

Yet, you might not have immediately appreciated that about Mr Bullock, who, apart from his stint in Government, was an academic who taught economics at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona. His unflappable, seemingly phlegmatic personality and willingness to engage with almost anyone masked a sharp intellect and stern spirit.

 

SIMPLICITY AND CLARITY

 

The key to Mr Bullock was his ability to bring simplicity and clarity to seemingly complex issues without compromising intellectual rigour. Indeed, many undergraduates at Mona from the 1970s up to the mid-1980s continue to insist that he was their best lecturer in economics.

It was that skill that caused the government of the day, in 2005, to engineer his secondment from the central bank, where he was a deputy governor, to be the chief bureaucrat at the finance ministry, where he served for three years before his displacement and return to Mona for another teaching stint. Colin Bullock formally returned to government in 2013, for three years, as head of the Planning Institute of Jamaica, but before that, had worked with former finance minister, Peter Phillips, on the IMF-supported economic reform programme that has set Jamaica on a potentially sustainable path to debt reduction and economic growth.

Perhaps the best distillation of Mr Bullock was offered by Dr Phillips, a friend from childhood. "Colin loved his country and served it well," he said.

Indeed, Colin Bullock provides an example, from closer to his period, of the kind of public servant of which Jamaica is worthy.