Prime Minister's Address at Retreat of Cabinet Ministers and Public Sector Managers - May 21, 2002
Thank you very much Cabinet Secretary and Chairman of our proceedings! Ministerial colleagues, Permanent Secretaries, Heads of Department, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, our very special guests, Dr. Plowden.
There is some among you who might be tempted to say that this activity should have been held two/three years ago. That may well be a justifiable point of view, but I have a feeling that this activity is now occurring at the right time.
First of all, my colleague Ministers came into office relatively green, with little experience under their belts, but over the last four years they have had the opportunity to get to know the Public Service and also to understand the ways of public officers/public servants and decision makers generally. So too, for the for the first time in a long time the public officers of this country had opportunity to actually experience a change of government something St. Lucia had been denied, except for a very short period in 1979 to1982.
Clearly both sides entered into a new experience and it certainly was a new journey in public administration. I believe therefore that now that we have had a resounding answer from the electorate of St. Lucia, and we have had the cumulated experience, the time is just right for this encounter. In a curious way we will be dealing with some very old problems, problems that are old as the period of entry of ministerial government.
From the very early days of ministerial government we have had challenges in managing the relationships between ministerial representatives and public officers, and how often we have been told by people like Professor J. Mills of the University of the West Indies about the traditional conflicts between Permanent Secretaries and Ministers.
But, despite the old problems that we will be addressing on this occasion, I am also aware that we will be dealing with some new issues forced upon by the changing definition of civil society and indeed the Public Service itself. Consider, as the Cabinet Secretary indicated that we have the challenge of corporate governance how to manage the Public Service for the good of civil society, for the benefit of civil society and how do we manage the very process of decision-making in our respective Ministries. Then there are the challenges of these three words: Openness, Transparency and Accountability, and even that has presented its own unique difficulties thus there are differences in perspectives between the politicians who introduce the concepts and the civil servants who have to translate the concepts.
What does transparency really mean in the context of the Public Service? Should it only apply to politicians or should it also apply to public officers? What of accountability, what does it mean? Are we dealing with accountability solely between the Permanent Secretary, the Head of Department and the Politician or are we dealing with a wider concept of accountability embracing, as it must accountability to civil society?
These issues are crucial because in the very final analysis it is hardly ever the public officer who has to answer to the public. It is the politician who must answer for the sins of the public officers so too it is the politician who must also answer for the successes of the Public Service and the public officers. Of course, there are cultures that handle that issue differently. In Japan, when public officers mess up the politician humbly resigns because it is unthinkable that he must allow the sins of the public officer to go into the public domain he must accept responsibility and he has to maintain his honour so he takes the route of resignation.
In St. Lucia, despite the changing times, it is true to say by and large the public officer is so consumed with the concept of neutrality that the public officer does not really want to go out and answer on behalf of the Government and the politician, for fear that this concept of neutrality will be exposed. Even if the public officer is working within a Government that insist on openness and transparency – a Government that has made the point that openness and transparency does not apply solely to politicians.
So we have some new issues to deal with, but we know full well that we simply cannot continue to govern in the old ways, we have to search for new models, new approaches we have to be realistic about really what should be within the domain of public governance and really what ought to be in the domain of the Private Sector.
I would want to say this though, as I look back over the past four years, and as we have sought to deal with the challenges that we face, there is much to cause me to reflect kindly, and also to reflect in an appreciating manner. I believe that we are blessed with one of the finest Public Services in the region. It is young, well endowed, highly skilled and one that understands too that we have to change the way we do things. I have had the opportunity to watch public officers
interact with our private sector and sometimes the experience can be so revealing because as I see them handle their counterparts in the private sector I often wonder why is it that the private sector wishes to tangle with public officers particularly when they come in unprepared.
We however, need to be careful because no matter what skills we have we cannot handle those skills in a patronizing way or we cannot handle those skills with arrogance. After all, our prime responsibility is service. But there are some nagging conflicts and I have had the opportunity to interact with both Permanent Secretaries and Ministers and reflect on correspondence that I see sometimes from both sides. One area and I am sure that will illicit discussion is that of policy. When does a public officer interfere with policy formulation? When does a public officer enter into a domain strictly speaking, belongs to the politician, belongs to the Minister? What therefore are the boundaries? Are the traditional definitions still applicable? That it is the Minister who must engage in policy formulation and the public officer merely to execute decided policy. And what if the decided policy is one that the public officer does not share? Does the public officer seek to frustrate that policy or does the public officer do the honourable thing and understand that the traditional definition of neutrality requires that whatever the primary belief may be that the government may hold sway.
Clearly we still have some nagging problems moral problems to resolve, but I have seen Ministers and civil servants invoke two important Sections of the Constitution - Section 62 and Section 69. Section 62 of course makes provision for the Constitution to allocate through the Prime Minister and the Governor- General constitutional responsibilities to the Ministers and Section 69 establishes departmental boundaries. And what is interesting is that both Ministers and Permanent Secretaries invoke 62 and 69 as if 62 and 69 provide both sides with equal comfort. It would be interesting as we reflect on those provisions.
But for politicians, one of the critical and crucial issues that we face jointly is the question of the management of civil society, of the public at large.
Unfortunately on a daily basis public officers are going to have far greater opportunity of interaction with members of the public, but whether we like it or not, it is that interaction with the public that send messages to the public about a government. And this is one of the areas I am sure that many of my colleagues will want to explore under the appropriate themes. Perhaps I can elucidate and clarify by referring to two common issues.
First, one has to deal with the Customs Departments, and my dear friend, the Comptroller who is here have heard me allude to this problem before and I know he is going to take this in the spirit in which it is delivered.
Our St. Lucian national goes off to Martinique, purchases goodies from Martinique, arrives in St. Lucia told by the Customs Officer that duty must be paid. Instinctively the reaction is outrage, anger – after all Martinique is just next door, and it does not occur to the citizen that Martinique operates under a totally different political and constitutional dispensation, and inevitably the complaints are issued “too much duty, too much tax,” and then the Customs Officer replies “that if you find it too much to pay, go to the Prime Minister he is one who puts the charges on the duties,” and how many members of the public approach me because the customs officer has said that the way to resolve the problem is to go to the Minister of Finance, go to the Prime Minister.
Whereas the reality is that the citizens should be told the truth, that is, that all of us irrespective of who we are have obligations to pay taxes. That in any event, taxes have been there even before Kenny Anthony or the Labour Government. It is part of our life, it is part of our responsibility, and that further perhaps if it had been the other way round, the taxes would even have been even higher than that imposed on citizens. It is a classic, classic case in point, and this has occurred not only in our Customs Department here in the north but also in the south on a repeated basis. Opportunities therefore for explaining policy, how Government works, those opportunities are lost. Worst yet, is the public officer who interprets his function in a partisan way, but that is a matter that I shall leave alone for the time being.
Then of course the familiar one, “Government has no money.” And how often have I seen public officers respond to persons in the public about requests of one kind or another, and the response is Government has no money. A common refrain.
I want to turn to that issue in a few minutes, but I also want to indicate that when those statements are made that more often than not we ourselves collectively engender our own survival and our own creditability. Yes, there are times when it is difficult as indeed it is difficult at this time, but the whole question that we need to address is this where does the collective responsibility lie? In my view, there can be no doubt that both the politician and the public officer has a joint responsibility to the public and to civil society, and those public officers who are intent on sending coded messages to the public at large, those public officers should really be asked to look for alternatives because in the final analysis it is the integrity of the system that is most fundamental.
I indicated in my very opening remarks that this encounter is taking place at the right time. There is another reason for this. These are difficult times and never before am I as uncertain and worried about the collective future of the Caribbean as I am today.
Only a few days ago I attended the annual meeting of the Caribbean Development Bank, and the President of the Bank reiterated what I had stated in the Budget Statement that these are truly perilous times for the Caribbean and the Caribbean will be forced to endure a period of grave danger and grave uncertainty. He alluded to the fact that already five countries of the Caribbean were in recession and as you would know St. Lucia is among them, Barbados, Grenada, Monsterrat, St. Vincent, Dominica and it is now public knowledge that Dominica is in the process of working out with the IMF a package to sustain Dominica in the next few months.
The fact is, none of us should look at the plight of Dominica and feel that we are immuned from the problems ahead. In my own view what has happened to Dominica has grave consequences for the region as a whole. And the fact that we have been brave and strong to introduce the measures, which we did in the last Budget, is to make sure that St. Lucia navigates itself very safely in the difficult waters ahead. What is astounding has been the depth and sharpness of the downturn that affects the region.
Consider for a moment Barbados, normally regarded as the home of safe economic house keeping and of course normally regarded as an economy capable of withstanding shocks, yet, in the first quarter of this year, the Barbadian economy decelerated by some 4% and only yesterday I had the opportunity to look at the Daily Nation and commenting on tourism they had this to say, and I am quoting this because I think you need to understand how serious this period is for the region as a whole.
The article starts off by saying quote, if you think April was bad, May is going to be worst. So said President of the Barbados Hotel and Tourism Association Alan Banfield, yesterday, following reports that there was a 33.6% fall in cruise passengers and a 22.5% decrease in stay over visitors in April 2002 compared to the corresponding period in 2001.” That’s Barbados.
I am going to rest it here and resist the temptation for looking at the performance of the other sectors. I say this to make the point that both Government and the Public Service have a collective responsibility to manage this period carefully, to be resolute and, more than anything else, to be efficient. We are fortunate that we have a resilient economy we are also fortunate that we have the will and the capacity to make the decisions that are so necessary at this time including those decisions that may not necessarily yield public favour. The point that I want to drive home is this, how we manage this period will depend not only on the politicians but what messages public officers issue to the public at large whether coded or otherwise.
I have no doubt in my mind that we will triumph over our difficulties. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that we will see a return to healthy growth as I have indicated by the fourth quarter, but equally, I have nod doubt in my mind that we will have to work with the rest of the region as the region goes through what is undoubtedly the most serious predicament that it has faced since the early 70’s.
As I speak to you, there are already two Governments who cannot pay their civil servants on time, I have already cited Dominica, the next case, equally serious, is that of Antigua.
It is against this background all of what I have said that I think that our interaction is so timely. Yes, we must discuss and resolve old problems. Yes, we must look at the new challenges, or the accountability or the transparence what all of that means. What are the new boundaries of governance that we are seeking to establish? But equally we must leave this forum with the collective will to resolve and manage the economic and political challenges that we face in the months ahead.
I would want us to speak frankly and openly. I would want us to seek clarification of issues that have bothered us in the past. But of course, speaking frankly and openly does not mean that we compromise respect for each other. The encounter must make full use of our tradition of engagement, but do so in a framework of understanding and, I re-emphasize respect.
I want to take the opportunity to compliment the Cabinet Secretary for arranging this retreat – this interaction, for organizing this retreat, this interaction. I also want to extend thanks to Dr. Plowden for being a resource person for this special activity. But my good friend Mr. Maurice King, who has just arrived, I would also like to thank him at short notice for being here. Maurice, of course, is a former Attorney General in Barbados and our relationship goes way back to those early days and every time I see him I do remember one very famous case in Barbados – the 8% case, when the Barbados Government found itself in serious financial and economic difficulty and Maurice was the Attorney General and the Government implemented an 8% wage cut at the behest of the IMF. And as often happens, it falls to the Attorney General when public-spirited citizens decide that they have to protect their interest, and so it was Maurice who was Attorney General and had to bear the burden of that fight.
One of the most important experiences I have had in my time was to have been invited by Maurice to help him prepare for that case and to provide the opinion and against all odds we succeeded at the Privy Council. But to this day I continue to feel a restlessness about the decision of the Privy Council because I think we feel very, very strongly that the Privy Council never quite understood the nature of the issues that faced the Public Service in the Caribbean and did not do justice to all sides.
So I am very, very pleased that with his rich background both as Attorney General and Minister of Labour, Foreign Affairs as well that he can be here and perhaps I should indicate to you that CARICOM has also made very good use of him as a potential trouble-maker, meaning that he has had to enter into the fray in Guyana to allow cool heads to replace passion and anger and the success that have had in resolving the issues in Guyana are owed in no small measure to the work of Maurice King, so I would like to extend a special welcome to him.
That being said, ladies and gentlemen, let’s make the next two days very meaningful and I am going to work very hard to make sure that our ministerial colleagues spend the next two days with you, and I am sure that my ministerial colleagues will make sure that their Heads of Departments do stay here for the next two days.
I thank you as we seek to chart a new course for Public Service.
May 21, 2002
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