Shield civil service from political pollution

Published: Sunday | November 25, 2012 Comments 0
Greg Christie, contractor general, has been lauded for his zeal in office. - File
Greg Christie, contractor general, has been lauded for his zeal in office. - File
Lensley Wolfe is the current chairman of the PSC. Edward Seaga says the PSC should be protected from political victimisation.
Lensley Wolfe is the current chairman of the PSC. Edward Seaga says the PSC should be protected from political victimisation.

Edward Seaga, Contributor

In the early days after Independence, there was a firm belief in the high quality of civil servants. This resulted from more than a decade of training of civil servants aimed at creating an accomplished team to take over the administration of the country.

The trainers were the British colonial masters who had recognised that the time was coming for them to be replaced by local administrators. The trainees received a strong message to carry out their duties honourably, that is, with perfection and integrity.

The design of the plan had been ordained at least a century before Independence, just after Emancipation. The responsibility of the colonial rulers, then, was to train youngsters from the black and brown middle class to become proficient administrators to help administrate the country. Others, former children of slaves, were to be given basic education, or none at all, so they would have to return to the cane field after freedom was proclaimed to keep the estate going.

By the middle of the 20th century, before Independence, there was enough of a cadre of scholastically trained graduates who had become civil servants in the middle and senior rankings who were ready to take on new responsibilities. With that background, it was logical that the Jamaican civil service of the 1960s was widely considered by United Nations teams and other international consultants to be among the best in the region.

But signs of change began to appear early. Bright young graduates of secondary schools could only get work with the civil service. Racial stratification designated the administrative public service for dark-skinned Jamaicans, while those of lighter shades would enter commerce (financial institutions and marketing companies), although not as well educated. Soon this began to change.

Under the powerful message of Marcus Garvey and those who followed him, not only were black people able to rise to top positions in the police force, the army, and the civil service, but finance and commerce began to open their doors to dark-skinned graduates with superior learning.

Retracing roots

The 1960s were, accordingly, a time of strengthening the civil service, which was in the forefront of upward mobility.

In the next decade, this direction became entangled in a political ideology which spoke to a continued growth of public service authority becoming a pass-through of greater power to the political leadership. Civil servants were called on to openly declare political allegiance. Financial deterioration and political deviations created family and national unrest, ending, in many cases, in migration. The essential design of governance was to the building of an all-powerful political state.

It was only natural that in the 1980s, a period of national rebuilding would follow. This was more so the mission because of the onslaught of the worst global depression at that time since the Great Depression in 1929. Rebuilding had to be ideological to restore incentive, initiative and industry, as well as fundamental, to strengthen the roots of the system of which both the public and private sectors were mainstays. The civil service was prioritised in this mission.

The Administrative Reform Programme (ARP) carried out between the Government and the World Bank was the most comprehensive restructuring of the civil service to that time. Regrading of posts created new initiatives and laid the framework for a sweeping salary adjustment to lift public-sector salaries to 80 per cent of the corresponding position in the private sector. This added new financial benefits and authority to the civil service.

The ARP coincided with the beginning of economic recovery in the 1980s, which enabled civil-service salaries to be meaningful. But the financial meltdown of the 1990s laid the foundation for settlement of equally massive increases in civil-service salaries to catch up. In turn, this dislocated the fiscal Budget. What was given with one hand had to be taken away with the other to attempt to readjust the fiscal Budget to carry the extra load of overexpenditure. This has become an ongoing problem to date.

The Budget resumed a surplus position in 1986 and maintained the surplus for a decade to 1996. But the consequential wage adjustment is one of the factors that resulted in an irreducible, swollen Budget that called for immediate drastic steps.

One of the most serious of the corrective measures is the drastic change proposed to the pension fund arrangement for civil servants.

Growth of increased wage liabilities of the civil-service pension funds apparently was not factored in when huge salary increases were made over the last 15 years. Hence, the liabilities which were $12 billion in 2007 now present ballooning obligations of $22 billion.

This is a horrendous blow to the viability of the future of the pension fund and, indeed, eventually, the fiscal Budget itself. For this reason, the forthcoming IMF agreement is requiring a contribution, for the first time by civil servants, of five per cent of wages/salaries to pay to the pension fund to reduce the unbearable burden to Government.

A country cannot develop in a series of undulating movements comprising peaks of distress followed by valleys of unrest.

THE NEED FOR STABILITY

The solution is stability, which avoids both extremes. Establishing fiscal stability is the intent of the new agreement with the IMF, but it will be a painful adjustment to the economy to recalibrate it to viable norms.

Stability is one of the areas for which the civil service has much responsibility. In this case, one of the agencies which carries this responsibility is the Office of the Contractor General (OCG). When I established the OCG in the mid-1980s, it was to regulate the conduct of Government by stopping corrupt practices which rocked the boat. Without a strong regulator, malpractices can destabilise the economy and the society and the system of governance by threatening the viability of the State, the moral fibre of the society and the probity of governance.

It is for this reason that I value the work of Contractor General Greg Christie. The discipline he has induced in governance is of paramount value to getting maximum performance. His strength is that he executes his duties without fear or favour. In so doing, he has had to be strong to ensure compliance, since the law did not provide him with an effective machinery for sanctions.

It is interesting to speculate what the country would have been like if the post of contractor general could ensure sanctions for violations. And, alternatively, if there was no contractor general?

Greg Christie has established the essential nature of post of contractor general. I trust his successor will maintain the standard of integrity set by him.

I rate the performance of Greg Christie at the highest level for the discipline of his leadership, the component most lacking in role models today. He has contributed greatly to the structure of governance by defining the routes of discipline to be taken in operating an administration, recovering lost ground in rebuilding the public service to an institution of paramount value.

PROTECTING PSC'S INTEGRITY

I regret that the Constitutional Reform Commission failed to complete its assignment to entrench selection of members of Public Service Commission (PSC) by the governor general after seeking the advice of both the prime minister and leader of the Opposition. The current situation continues to give the prime minister the paramount position. Hence, the court has been asked to clarify appointments which did not suit the preference of the prime minister in both PNP and JLP governments.

Public servants must be protected from the use of individual political preferences which can be used to ensure that the power of the PSC will not be used to endorse the tunes played by political masters.

A temporary solution was the informal decision taken by then Prime Minister P.J. Patterson and myself to follow the route of the governor general making the supreme appointments in regard to the Police Service Commission. The PSC should follow this route informally, pending constitutional ratification.

The roles of the public service and the political directorship are not one of 'we' and 'they'. Both are interdigitated. If public-sector institutions like the OCG are weakened, that allows greater entry into the system of governance of those in the political directorship who are seeking to pursue self-interest. Likewise, if the political directorship is weakened, the laxity will allow for greater improprieties in the public service.

In this system, on which probity depends, elected and permanent representatives become their brother's keeper. Then, and only then, will the system of governance function effectively and with ultimate benefits to the nation.

Edward Seaga is a former prime minister. He is now chancellor of UTech and a distinguished fellow at the UWI. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and odf@uwimona.edu.jm.

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