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Politicised public service and financing education

Published:Sunday | June 26, 2011 | 12:00 AM

Martin Henry, Contributor


G2K President Delano Seiveright has been generally roundly chastised for his view expressed in social media and Wikileaked from a 2009 exchange with US Embassy personnel that known People's National Party (PNP) supporters in the public service should be removed and the jobs given to Labourites. His own party has distanced itself from the comments made on social media, and Seiveright was reprimanded.


The October 2009 cable says, "Delano Seiveright, a Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) party insider who works in the PM's office, told [embassy official, name deleted by The Gleaner] that the general feeling within the JLP was that Golding had wasted valuable time pursuing elusive political consensus with an opposition party unwilling to accept its fate [and] as a result ... after years of toiling for the party, (JLP supporters) had expected to assume some of the posts held by known PNP operatives."

That cable was delivered soon after Prime Minister Golding announced the plan for the rationalisation of the public sector. Later on, using social media, the G2K president reiterated that if "we continue to keep these people in sensitive positions, then all this does is to maintain the status quo of Jamaica being a PNP country and the JLP running the risk of being a one-term government ... . We won the election, which gives us the opportunity to implement policies that we sold to the electorate. These policies cannot be led by PNP functionaries and their affiliates dressed in civil servant suits and perceived as being impartial."

Political tribalism

What nasty political tribalism by a young activist who is positioned to one day lead the country! ... Until some probing questions are asked which take us beneath the surface! Suppose, just suppose, that the public service has been, in fact, strategically stuffed by the other side with their own loyalists and activists while in power. And it doesn't matter what the names of the sides are? When there is a change of government, how should the other side proceed?

When Delano was still in short pants, Gladstone Mills, University of the West Indies professor of public administration and one-time chairman of both the Public Services Commission and the Electoral Commission, who had started his professional life in the public service, delivered the 1997 GraceKennedy Foundation Lecture on 'Westminster Style Democracy: The Jamaican Experience'. Professor Mills devoted a major section of the printed lecture to 'Politicisation of the Civil Service'. In that section, Mills quoted from a minister of government who in the 1970s had been faced with a certain dilemma of employment and deployment in the civil service to satisfy the needs of the new direction the Government was then embarking upon. The minister of national mobilisation, D.K. Duncan, declared in Parliament in 1976, several years before Delano was born, "in a Ministry of National Mobilisation in a socialist government, it is very difficult to employ somebody who is not a socialist. I make no apology. Every single employee in the Ministry of National Mobilisation, his (sic) credentials as a democratic socialist are clear and pure."

Mills was writing about the 'The (Robert) Pickersgill Committee of Political Purity'. This is what Mills had to say about that committee: "... Concern about the controversial issue of commitment versus competence as one of the selection criteria in appointments to statutory boards and committees was intensified during the latter part of the seventies. Following the 1976 election victory, the PNP created a party Accreditation Committee. The Pickersgill Committee of Political Purity (as it was dubbed) evidently had the task of screening candidates to ensure that appointees were of impeccable political purity."

Mills was not just criticising Jamaica; he was careful to point out that even at the home of the Westminster-Whitehall model, the critical triad of principles on which a depoliticised public service was based - neutrality, anonymity, and impartiality - was under pressure. A significant element of the pressure was the multiplication of special or political advisers, an arrangement with which Delano Seiveright is experientially very familiar.

But going back to the mainstream civil service: Once the service begins to be stuffed with loyalists/activists, it is extraordinarily difficult not to expect any change of government not to want to have their own sympathisers in place, especially in a politically tribal environment like Jamaica where sabotage from the inner sanctum itself is a clear and present danger. Or, at the very least, to attempt to return to the ideal 'neutrality' of the Westminster-Whitehall civil service model.

That model was crafted in a political environment populated by closely similar political parties and having minimal tribalism. Our dilemma is how to safely dismount this tiger of the politicised civil service. It certainly is not reasonable to simply blindly demand that 'known' activists planted in the service by the other side to advance their interests should never be replaced as obstacles to the advancement of the interests of a new side in Government, and if any such move is made, it is just wicked victimisation. But how are 'known' loyalists/activists known? And how are they to be handled when 'known'?

Filling key posts

But quite apart from the sticky issue of a government having to rely upon the services of disloyalists who may be scattered about the general public service, it seems to me that there are some ultrasensitive posts which any government hoping to succeed in delivering on its own promises and goals would need to have the assurance of being filled by at least neutralists. We never discuss these things.

And we have never developed the tradition of people holding such politically sensitive posts resigning them as a matter of course with a change of administration. Just to take a couple of pretty obvious examples: How can any new government rely upon a manager of communication who may be a loyalist/activist for the other side? Or a budget leadership team ideologically committed to the fiscal policies of the other side? Or a Cabinet secretary with demonstrable affinities elsewhere? Should the question be extended to all permanent secretaries?

Seiveright picked two poor examples in his complaint: the office of BOJ governor and the office of police commissioner. Both should be completely independent of the control of the executive of Government in a way that no budget office, or office of communication, or Cabinet Office can ever be.

Let's talk through these things and not just shout down young Seiveright, political loyalist/activist in the bosom of public administration though he is. At least he is publicly known as special (political) adviser and will leave with his political masters when we tell them ta-ta.

FINANCING TERTIARY EDUCATION

UWI senior lecturer in international business and head of the Department of Management Studies, and a friend, Dr Densil Williams, wants us to 'Rethink funding of university education' (Sunday Gleaner, In Focus, June 19). Having accurately described Education Minister Andrew Holness' proposition to allocate students' tertiary education dollars through the Students' Loan Bureau to spend with institutions of their choice rather than giving subventions directly to institutions (a revolutionary proposition which I have already praised in this space), Dr Williams, normally a solid market man, goes on to complain that "if universities are at different levels of quality, and if we assume that students are not bothered about quality but are more interested in getting a degree, this proposed policy will spell disaster for institutions that are viewed as more rigorous in their educational offerings." Like the UWI?

Quite apart from the disrespect to the judgement of students/education customers, just how do you compare the 'quality' of a graduate in pharmacy with one in history? The market is snapping up the pharmacists for sure and that's a massive vote of confidence.

Accreditation, demanded by Dr Williams as a condition for equalisation, is the least of our problems. It is now deeply entrenched in the system and, even if it weren't, the market would still be delivering its quality judgement. Accreditation is highly sought after by both institutions and shopping students. A far bigger problem than accreditation is financing capital development in higher education. The Holness proposal for funding students, not institutions, can address operational costs, not likely capital expansion of university capacity.

Citical problem

Another critical problem is the supply of university-ready students for a growing university sector. Of the 50,000 or so high-school graduates each year, fewer than 10 per cent (5,000) have gained minimum CSEC qualifications for university matriculation. The Holness model for financing education is seeking to fix that problem by shifting state resources to strengthen the base.

Also, financing research and innovation, a Williams concern, does not have to be tied to subventions. "Levelling the playing field" must include reducing the preferential treatment in per capita subvention traditionally accorded to one institution. Research can be successfully financed through competitive bidding for project support from a pool of dedicated public funds, from the income of universities from the sale of their services, and from grants, a position which the University of Technology is now vigorously advocating with the bubbling confidence that it can offer critical technical solutions to many of the development issues which are bothering Dr Williams, and in many cases uniquely so.

There is nothing to stop the Government from offering scholarships, in whole or in part, to bright needy students or to preferentially channel students into undersubscribed areas of national priority like, for instance, agriculture professions, with appropriate payback through service.

Let's iron out the kinks and gaps in the winning Holness model for financing higher education in Jamaica and bring it on!

Martin Henry is a communications consultant. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.