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FRANKLY SPEAKING: Our Public Service is so badly broken

Caswell Franklyn

FRANKLY SPEAKING: Our Public Service is so badly broken

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Many people actively pursue jobs/careers in the Public Service because of the widely held, but mistaken, view that employment in the service of the Government is more beneficial (financially rewarding) than private sector employment.
Don’t get me wrong. There are still some categories in the lower echelons of the Public Service that still enjoy better pay and conditions than similarly placed private sector workers. But, generally, things have been changed and are changing for the worse for public officers.
Over the last 40 years, Government has been whittling away at the terms and conditions in the Public Service in an apparent attempt to level the playing field between public and private sector workers. With the enactment of the Employment Rights Act, the rights conferred on private sector workers have far outstripped those of the Public Service. Government can no longer claim to be a model employer: it has forced requirements on the private sector that are too onerous for it to implement in the Public Service.
Not so long ago there was no abundance of tertiary level qualifications for management level positions. Back then, it was possible for young persons to leave school and land jobs in the Civil Service even with minimal qualifications. Thereafter, those officers were guaranteed monthly pay cheques up to age 55 where they could have opted for early retirement and receive pensions until death.
Those who were ambitious enough would make use of Government’s generous training and study leave provisions, while still receiving their salaries, and eventually they would work their way through the service to become senior managers. The officers who did not go that route could still plod along and, with in-service and on-the-job training, they were still able to end up at supervisory and other middle management positions. In both cases, however, senior persons in the Civil Service would have gone through the ranks. That system of recruitment and promotion produced a professional Civil Service that was the envy of the other English-speaking Caribbean territories that is only reminisced about these days.
We often hear people lament the decline of the Public Service and then recommend privatization without first understandingt he reasons for the falling standards. There are many but I will deal with three for now: free university education; changes in conditions of service; and political involvement in the recruitment and promotion processes.
The advent of free university education, even though desirable, has been mismanaged to the point where the decline of the Public Service appears to be an unintended consequence. The proliferation of university degrees has reached a stage where the market cannot absorb the numbers. To remedy this situation, rather than provide an environment for this cadre of better educated people to use their skills or actively encourage entrepreneurship, Government set about on a short-sighted campaign of changing qualification requirements for public service jobs. Even mundane and repetitive jobs did not escape the reclassifiers’ pens.
If you have a degree, it is now possible to be recruited, from outside the Public Service on the basis of an interview, to senior specialised jobs without any knowledge or experience in the particular field. Nowhere has this been felt more acutely than at the Customs and Excise Department. As a result, many officers who have honed their skills, through years of dedicated service and by a series of non-degree specialised training in their field, have been bypassed for promotion in favour for degree holders.
Officers who have been overlooked opt for early retirement and take home with them many years of specialised training and institutional knowledge that cannot be found in any degree programme. And in some cases, they just stick around while refusing to teach their superiors. It can only benefit the Public Service if a way is found to put some value on the years of specialised knowledge that many of these non-degree experts bring to the table.
Very often officers would have worked and studied hard to obtain the necessary qualifications for promotion, only to find out when a particular post is advertised, that the qualification requirements had been changed days earlier. Just imagine the anger and hurt experienced by officers, who have positioned themselves for promotion, when they discover that the minister with responsibility for the Public Service had been persuaded to change the qualifications without notice to anyone. According to Section 13 (1), (2), (3) and (4) of the Public Service Act, the minister is empowered to make changes to certain rules in the Public Service. Any such changes, except changes to qualifications, must be brought to Parliament for an affirmative vote before they become effective. This is one area where a minister can make secret rules and then spring them on unsuspecting public officers at the last minute.
In the Customs Department, one of the qualification requirements for a particular post was changed in circumstances where only two people in Barbados possess the new qualification and only two others are pursuing it.
The other aspect that is wreaking havoc in the Public Service is political interference in the recruiting and promotion processes. The 1974 constitutional amendments require the Prime Minister to consult with the appropriate service commission to fill posts of permanent secretary and other heads of department. It seems that the commissions have interpreted consult to mean that the Prime Minister should make the selection and that has caused persons who are seeking promotion to those grades to align themselves with politicians to the detriment of the Public Service.
Constraints of space do not allow me to delve any further into this aspect, except to say that the Public Service is badly broken and needs a general, non-political overhaul.
• Caswell Franklyn is a trade unionist and social commentator.