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Sunday, January 24, 2021
Home Editorial “Yes, Minister”

“Yes, Minister”

In recent weeks, the United Kingdom (UK) government has commissioned a think tank to come up with ways to reform the British civil service, particularly to make the service more responsive to the political directorate. Primary among the recommendations is an expected change from the Permanent Secretary (PS) system to the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) model.

Under the former, career public officers, steeped in the tradition of the public service and the crème de la crème of the service, rise to the top and serve in the highly coveted PS position. In addition to providing policy advice to the minister, the PS is responsible for the day-to-day running of the Ministry; that person is the top manager — the chief accounting officer where the public’s cheese is concerned.

In the new model, the CEO model, the top managers are appointed by the ministers on a fixed-contract basis, usually for the life of the newly elected government. In the model contemplated, the UK will drastically increase the number of political appointees in the civil service. Policy advisors, senior press officers and private secretaries will be appointed by the minister for whom they work. In Belize we call them contract officers.

The argument for this new system is that it will make the CEO and the other political appointees more accountable to their political bosses. More will get done, they argue, and the civil servants will be less likely to delay and sabotage policies.

The UK government would be well-advised to have a little tete-a-tete with Belize on the so-called civil service reforms they are contemplating. What we have described above is the exact model that we have been operating in Belize for the last 14 years, and the verdict is in, and has been in for some time now. It has not made things better; what it has done is bastardize the civil service in Belize.

Critics in the UK fear that such a move would see the impartiality of their civil service dramatically diminished, with senior civil servants agreeing to implement ministerial policies regardless of their consequences. They have every reason to be fearful.

When the PUP government took over with an overwhelming 26-3 mandate in 1998, using the same arguments posited above, they did away with the PS system for the CEO model. CEOs, with little or no civil service training, but of veritable PUP pedigree, were brought in to lead the service. The result was all manner of transgressions against the previously sacrosanct traditions of the civil service. History records that the government went wild.

The public officers became “yes, Minister” types, tumbling over themselves to please the minister in the hope of getting a sliver of the pie. They took their cue from the political appointees at the top. The public servants were no longer motivated to follow the dictates of the civil service; the way to the top was through political brownnosing. What was expedient and desirable to the politicians took preference over what was right and practical.

Longtime public officers will tell you that the bastardization of the service started piecemeal under the 1984-89 UDP administration when they hired “executive officers” to be attached to the ministries, working practically parallel to the permanent secretaries. The contract officers had gotten their foot in the door. Successive administrations thereafter employed contract officers of their choice, bothering only to change the nomenclature to “advisors.”

The 1998 PUP took it to a different level, implementing a “revolution” of sorts, a full 14 years ahead of the UK, whose Westminster model of democracy is so widely practiced in the Commonwealth. Problem is, that revolution was not to end poverty, or to make land available to the masses, or to transform the education system. What this revolution did was to corrupt the system. It made it much easier for corrupt ministers to get all manner of malfeasance done.

A good number of senior public officers, in the process, lost their moral compass. They stopped speaking truth to power. They no longer practiced the time-honored tradition of “putting it in writing,” whenever they felt uneasy about any proposed policy or practice. They gave in to the “politicization” of the service.

It was as if the government removed the guard from the front door in 1998, and left the vault open at the people’s bank when they changed the system from the PS to the CEO. The pillaging of the public treasury continues to this day, though some may argue, some self-righteously so, that it is not as much as under the previous administration.

But that is no consolation to the general public. They look at the Lands Department, where it is reported that from the lowest level worker to the gatekeepers at the top need their “paws buttered” for simple land transactions to be completed. What is so absolutely wrong with the present system of governance is on full display at this most important of offices.

Under the old system, there would have been a good and gentle person at the helm as permanent secretary. He would have been surrounded by senior public officers who have honor and decency, whose reputation matter to them since they hope to someday ascend to his rank. Together they would have had the strength of character and decency to say, “No, Minister, you and your family are normal. You are not better than the families of the ordinary citizens on the streets.” “No, Minister, you cannot do that.”

What we have now is a “yes, Minister” culture pervading the service. In this culture, the elected politician does no wrong. He is a little demigod, who has civil servants traipsing at his heels: “You hungry, Minister?” “Whatever you want, Minister.”

Senior public officers dare not speak truth to him. They have to play along, like little children, or else they will be spanked, or worse, sent packing. And there is very little recourse in the system. For the most part, the ministers are allowed to be judge, jury and executioner. The Public Service Commission these days appears emasculated.

The time has come for a rethink of that tragic revolution of 1998. The UK can repeat our mistakes of the last 14 years if they want. The City of London is the financial capital of the world. World economic problems notwithstanding, the British are set.

But from where we sit, it appears to us that this CEO model has failed us. Under the old system, with all its myriad shortcomings, the senior public officers were the worthy guardians of the people’s money. A lot less skullduggery, we believe, would have been allowed under that system.

Truth is, though, at the rate we are going these days, there is no telling when this system will be fixed. The new ministers and their political appointees are always trying to outdo those that came before, with varying degrees of success, of course. Same circus, different clowns. Only the people can save the people, of that we are sure. It is written.

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