My life serving the public
The Civil Service was once famously described as “an army of occupation”, but Lucene Wharton-Isaacs sees it differently. Based on her own experience, she suggests dedicated “soldiers” like herself can be found throughout Barbados’ Public Service. After all, it is where she has spent her entire working life – all 47 years of it.
She holds the key position of Cabinet Secretary, which she could not have seen herself occupying in 1967, when, as a teenager fresh out of Christ Church Girls’ Foundation School, she walked into the Services Commission offices on Culloden Road in search of a job.
With that bold move, her enjoyment of a summer vacation went through the window. She and her friends were immediately recruited and placed in Government jobs.
She told EASY magazine, “I thought initially that I would want to work in banking and I did apply to a bank but in those days there were no vacancies. So after school a group of girls from Foundation made an interesting visit to the Services Commission Department, where people registered for employment in the Public Service.”
Wharton-Isaacs began as a temporary clerical office in the Town and Country Planning Department and after ten months moved on to the Ministry of Communications and Works. She however attributes her grounding in the area of human resources to her early exposure as assistant personnel officer in the Ministry of Transport and Works. She was later promoted to personnel officer at the then Services Commission Department.
“I really like human resources” she said, confessing she would have been just as happy to have been appointed to head this section of the Civil Service today, as she is in her present position.
The responsibilities of the cabinet secretary are heavy. A typical day sees her milling over files, vetting all Cabinet papers from various ministries across the Public Service that will require a Cabinet decision at the weekly Cabinet meeting.
As Thursday approaches, the secretariat is abuzz with activity as she depends on the input of her entire team to get the job done.
It is her job to write up all Cabinet decisions and have them ready the day after the Cabinet meeting, in preparation for the calls from permanent secretaries eager to find out the outcome with regard to papers they submitted.
“Invariably I do not leave here on Thursdays until I have completed all those decisions,” said Wharton-Isaacs. With eyes tired from all the reading she has had to do during the day, the only word she wants to see when she gets home is the Daily Word devotional, which is an integral part of her life.
Wharton-Isaacs advocates preparation for the job you choose. That is why early in her career she went to the University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica, and successfully completed the Certificate in Public Administration.
Promotions in the service followed at four to six-year intervals, enabling her to gain experience and exposure throughout the Public Service. She acted as Chief Personnel Officer, was appointed to the post of Deputy Chief Personnel Officer; was Deputy Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Tourism, International Transport and the Environment; was Deputy Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health; was Permanent Secretary in the Office of the Attorney-General and before the appointment as Cabinet Secretary, andwas Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Her advice to other public servants: “Work on self-development because there is competition.”
Her perseverance saw her through and it is the route she recommends for progress up the ranks.
Take her own experience, for example. When she completed studies for the Certificate in Public Administration at the UWI Jamaica in 1980, she applied to the university to study for a bachelor’s degree and failed to gain entry.
When she applied a second time, public officers were not being granted paid leave but, as she reasoned “on occasions like this you find a way to do it”!
She befriended another student who was doing the same programme, attended about 50 per cent of the classes and relied on that friend to share the other 50 per cent of the notes she missed. She also made an effort to attend all the tutorials and would ask for “a little time off work on Thursday morning” to attend the critical classes and go back to work afterwards: “You have to make certain sacrifices. Leave was not being granted so you had to find a way to achieve.”
Wharton-Isaacs give credit to her husband William for the family support he has given her through the years. With his help, she has managed to maintain a healthy home/work balance.
Taking a long breath and flashing a smile she said “My husband helps me tremendously. He is a retired person . . . . He says ‘I don’t think that if I am not working and you are working that you should have to come home and do everything in the house.”
She tells how he follows up words with action, helping with every household chore including his favourite chore – cooking for the family.
“He loves to cook,” Wharton-Isaacs said of her Kittitian-born husband who spent many years living in England. Even on the weekend when her conscience may prick and she feels inclined to take on the kitchen and prepare the Sunday lunch, he steps in and takes control.
It is the kind of caring that Wharton-Isaacs acknowledges and appreciates. Every morning before proceeding to work, she drops her husband off at the garden plot to indulge in his hobby (gardening) and she is there at the end of the day to collect him.
It is he who ensures she is out of bed by 5:30 a.m., early enough that she can get in her daily swim at Miami Beach. That exercise “refreshes me for the day” and it has replaced the regular walks she used to take around the Garrison Savannah and is supplemented with “a little strength-building” at the gym.
But her real sustenance she admits comes from the “Great Father above.”
“I depend on the Lord for everything.” She has already completed a diploma in Theology at Codrington College and vows to pursue a bachelor’s “when I am at leisure from here (the Public Service).”
Retirement is around the corner for the mother of a 23-year-old daughter and the grandmother of a four-year-old granddaughter.
For anyone planning to enter the service she shares these words of advice, “You come to work in a new situation, you have to learn what the organisation is all about, you have to know what to do in that organisation and you have to know how to communicate with people in that organisation.”