ON POLITICS AND THE PUBLIC SERVICE
FIRST ASSISTANT SECRETARIES ASSESSMENT
28 JUNE 2002
I am honoured to be here this
morning to say A few words about politics and the public service.
You may be aware of some of the remarks that I made in the House of Assembly
congratulating the public service on the seamless manner in which there
was a transition from one Government to another. We should not have
to say congratulations, because it really should be as a matter of course.
But we ought to say congratulations because it is clear that even in the
most developed systems, times of crises can make it seem that the nation
is on the verge of disintegrating. The fact that we held it
together during the transition is a tribute to us all but special thanks
to the public service generally is deserved.
I have also remarked that the public service is supposed to be politically neutral in the application of its advice and in the delivery of its services to the Bahamian people. The public service must be fair, rational and certain in the application of its policies and procedures both as regards its own governance and in the double roles that I laid out just a few seconds ago.
But that does not mean that the public service is not politically insensitive. It must be sensitive to the political atmosphere and the policies of political parties – all political parties. We will never know one day who will be responsible politically for making the decisions.
You are the management group of the service, and therefore it is likely that one day not too far from now you will be the principle advisers to Ministers. And it is in that role that you will be called upon to help to execute the political policies made by the Minister. It is not the role of the public service to make a judgment on those policies. You may well disagree but whether one disagrees or not, ultimately once it is a lawful order it ought to be carried out with dispatch.
You will know for example that the Government came to office promising to resolve suspension and interdiction and transfers of the Air Traffic Controllers. That was a political decision that we made as a party before coming to office with a view to ensuring that there was a return to the status quo ante. It is a decision made in the public interest.
The New Minister of Transport has announced that it is to be resolved shortly.
And so while the policy of the previous administration was to proceed as they did, this new administration has made a different decision. The public service while it may advise different, has the role of ensuring the policies of the Government are carried out as seamlessly as possible and with dispatch.
Now of course we know that there the public service while on the face of it is politically neutral has its influence and it can influence the political atmosphere by its own lobbying efforts. It is interesting to note in this connection just yesterday that there was a radio show that appeared to be seeking to stop the policy of settling the issue with the controllers. But no one can deny that the issue must be resolved, and there is plenty of precedent for the fact that at some times it is better to have a return to the status quo ante and each side start afresh, every one seeks to heal their wounds and engender good will. The principal advisors to the Government ought to have been aware of the wish of the new administration and should have been preparing the way for that policy to be implemented as seamlessly possible once the new Ministers took office.
Because we have not had many changes in Governments in the country, we do not have the depth of experience with these matters. It is incumbent for example for the public service to be able to brief so far as law and convention allows the Opposition spokesmen on various Government Ministries and follow the polices of those spokesmen and the Shadow Cabinet. The Shadow Cabinet of today is in our system the alternative to the Government. And our Prime Minister Perry Christie seeks to engender in this new dispensation the sharing of information with our opposite numbers so far as convention and law allows. In my case the Member for Monatgu Brent Symmonette is the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Shadow Minister for the Public Service is the Leader of the Opposition Alvin Smith. And both of these gentlemen will be contacted shortly by the respective Permanent Secretaries with a view to establishing some protocols on how this is to work in practice.
And in addition, it is my wish to establish a written protocol on how former Ministers and the former Prime Minister may properly access information from their former Departments. This is to protect the public servant from any unnecessary suspicions as they do their work.
And so the interplay between politics and the public service requires a sophisticated understanding and comprehension of the respective roles that Ministers play and public servants play. The public servant is the wind beneath the wings of the political directorate. The role of the Permanent Secretary is the principal supervisor of Ministry. The P.S. is to advise, support and execute, not overshadow or compete but at all times in a politically neutral fashion.
And as new Ministers take their places and get comfortable in their seats, there may be considerable change in the structure and administration of Ministries, a new way of doing things. Certainly in my own Ministry, I do not intend for administrative chokepoints to prevent the proper implementation of public policy as the Cabinet of The Bahamas determines. And so the most comprehensive nature of the public service must be that of flexibility and adaptability to the changes that new people and ideas bring.
It is an easy job once we all try not to take these matters personally but professionally. All Ministers I am sure of this administration will treat the advice and counsel of public servants seriously and with due deliberation but in the end it is the Minister’s decision. And in the end, the Minister cannot hide behind the public servant. In our system, it is the Minister who is responsible to the nation and to Parliament.
I thank you for your attention.