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IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST: Some uncivil servants

Roy R. Morris

IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST: Some uncivil servants

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No one can convince me otherwise: After more than three decades in journalism, I am more than satisfied that the men and women who make up the Civil Service have contributed immensely to Barbados’ development.
We may have our problems in education today, but by and large we are where we are today because our educators and education administrators have been dedicated to the task. Because of their determination and hard work, we have been able to refer to our people as our “No. 1 natural resource”.
We may also be having more problems with our health-care system today than we may want to admit, but again the reputation we have developed that has placed us head and shoulders above many of our neighbours was largely the result of public servants who understood their duty to others.
We don’t have more paved roads per square kilometre than any other Caribbean island – even if many of those surfaces are littered with potholes today and are at least a decade overdue for repaving – because we have a romantic connection to asphalt. Our civil servants understood the importance of solid infrastructure to national development.
The same can be said for our success in agriculture, particularly sugar, which is legendary worldwide, and again while our public servants might not have been out in the sun and rain with a hoe and fork, the support they have lent to the sector traditionally would have been critical to achieving that success. It does not matter that today it seems like the handful of canes we now grow could be easily accommodated on The Belle and Waterford plantations.
And we can apply this thinking to just about every national sector – and feel proud. But alas, while we still have hundreds, even thousands, of hard-working public servants – let’s hope that by the time this Government is done there are still thousands left – it is clear that an increasing number are frustrating the process of development rather than helping it.
We all know the part partisan politics plays in this. When the Dems are in power, as is the case today, there are some civil servants who fancy themselves as loyal to the Bees who set out on every hand to stall plans. When the Bees are in power, the reverse is true.
My own interaction leaves me to conclude that today this practice is perhaps more rampant that it has ever been. However, my view is also that in too many instances, ministers and other party operatives have been known to treat some public servants with such disrespect that they fight back with the only real weapon they have against the all-mighty politician – they frustrate the process.
Not so long ago I had a long chat with a Government minister who spoke of waiting months for a file from another ministry. His officer, he said, complained bitterly that whenever he enquired about the file, all he was told was that it had not arrived yet.
When he insisted that someone go and retrieve the file, the explanation from the corresponding officer in the other ministry was that the file had been ready for months, but no one came for it. Ironically, the two offices of the two ministries were located in the same building, just doors away.
This would be funny were it not for the fact that the file related to a private entity that could not move ahead on an important project without the approval of both ministries and the delay cost the company substantially each month.
But the next example of public disservice left me shocked. I was told of a project that, when completed, will bring substantial social good to this island, particularly to children with various challenges. Apparently, Cabinet approved the project and that approval was communicated verbally to a key player involved so they could move ahead with their preparation.
However, when several months had passed and no written approval came as was indicated, the person enquired and enquired and enquired until there was intervention at a very high level. I can’t swear since I did not see it, but my information is that when the file was retrieved from the office of a senior civil servant, there was a note attached which read: “This is a lost file.”
Apparently, frustrating the process does not just involve files that are actually misplaced. There is, or was, a category of files filed away under the heading of “LOST”. I am told that after an investigation, several other similarly designated files were located.
Personally, when such a situation takes place, I have to conclude that there may be other motives at play other than “frustration” of the minister or the Government.
I also know of the case of a former Cabinet minister, who was known to be a hard worker and truly dedicated to the cause of pushing Barbados forward. I am also convinced that neither personal gain nor greed was among the person’s motivations. However, this minister possessed a rather caustic tongue and was known for blistering persons who offended with some of the most colourful metaphors, long before we heard of the phrase “sharpening my tongue on both sides”. This minister “cussed” officers in the ministry regardless of if they were in private or public and without thought to their rank or station.
How did one top civil servant deal with the disrespect? Each time the minister warned that anything said at “X” or “Y” meeting must not be disclosed, the person would immediately leak it to the Press. Each time they were “cussed” and told by the minister he/she would deal with anyone who made a document public, that person would ensure that the most secret documents of the Cabinet fell from the back of a truck promptly after the Thursday sessions at Government Headquarters.
What’s the moral of the story: Our country has done well, but in many ways our standards are falling. Our politicians need to treat public servants with respect, our public servants need to recognise that when they set out to spite politicians, it can have a profound impact on individuals and entities doing business with the state, and where there are dishonest public officers, they can’t be allowed to hide behind bureaucracy.