Generally when one is asked to give their opinion on the Public Service and public officers in Trinidad and Tobago the following terms usually come up: lazy, corrupt, red tape, run-around and poor service.
Yet is this image fair? My answer would be yes and no.
This answer comes from the backdrop of having worked in the Public Service for the last 10 years and having the opportunity to work with senior public officers, experienced permanent secretaries, ministers and well as the general administrative and clerical staff in several ministries.
While the general image of public officers being lazy and unable to do their job may be true in some circumstances, I have found that this also has a lot to do with the current systems and process currently employed in the Service.
For many who may not be aware, our Public Service is enshrined by a legislations that dates back to the 1960’s. These legislations such as the Public Service Regulations, the Civil Service Act, the Exchequer and Audit Act, the Pensions Act, etc, set out the general way in which the Public Service ought to operate.
While these legislations would have been relevant in the 1960’s, fast-forward 50-plus years—and take into consideration the advances that have taken place in the way we live and operate in the 21st Century—and one can argue that the current legislative framework is no longer relevant.
In fact while many public officers acknowledge this, successive administrations have never taken the necessary steps to correct it. Thereby leaving public officers handicapped and unable to adapt to the changing environment.
I, for example, would argue that we have some of the best trained public officers in the world, as millions are spent every year by ministries on training officers in new technology and ways of doing business.
However when many return to their respective agencies and try to implement these new skills they are often faced with a “Stone Wall”—the aforementioned legislation—which prevents them from doing anything. Many are therefore left frustrated and just go about their daily routine or seek alternative employment opportunities—if they are able to—outside the Public Service.
Another issue currently being faced by the Public Service—but so far as not gotten enough attention—is the decreasing work force of Public Officers.
Over the last decade, one would have heard of numerous claims by the PSA and several ministries of the number of vacancies that currently exist in the Public Service. Because of this, many public officers are over worked and this leads to poor service delivery and other issues like corruption, etc.
In fact by my estimation, we would have lost over 7,500 public officers in the service for the period 2014 to the end of 2016. This is because the baby boomer generation—those born in the period 1946 and 1964—who would have staffed the Public Service in its early years, are now reaching the age of retirement.
The flip side is that the Public Service is not taking in enough staff to replace those who are retiring.
For me this is mainly due to two main reasons. Firstly the Public Service is no longer able to attract the younger generation and faces competition from the private sector and other countries for talent.
Secondly, the current process for getting into the Service is long and totally paper based. For example I applied for a position of a Foreign Service Officer I in 2002, did the exam later that year but was not called for an interview until 2005. By then, of course, my vision for myself would have changed.
So why, you would ask, has no government tried to change this system?
Well the simple answer is that several attempts have been made. The photograph below highlights the reform efforts over the last 50 plus years.
So then the question must be asked: If we have done so much work over the last 50 years in understanding the issues currently faced by the Public Service and have recommendations for transforming it into a more effective and efficient organisation for Trinidad and Tobago, why has nothing been done?
From my experience this is due to two main issues. Firstly there is a genuine resistance to change by some in the Public Service. This may be because any reform in the current service may limit the power some officers may have in earning what I like to term “alternative income.”
We have to be honest, the current red-tape leads to the ability for corrupt activities to flourish in the delivery of public services, and those who benefit from this will do anything in their power to prevent it.
Also many officers fear that any transformation would lead to job losses—a mantra usually facilitated by the representative Unions. While this may be true, from my experience this fear usually comes from the lack of trust in the politicians and mis-communication or no communication at all when the conversation of reform comes up.
Secondly, and for me the main reason for the failure to implement any successful reform efforts, has to do with political will.
Successive administrations generally pay lip service to the ideals of Public Service reform and in my experience spend the first three years of their term reviewing past efforts and putting their own unique spin on it.
Then by the fourth year—with elections around the corner—whatever “reform” is done is generally window dressing to give the illusion of change and win re-election. Then we start the cycle all over again.
So how exactly do we transform this beast called the Public Service?
Well to begin with, we have to first admit that it is not going to be an easy task. After all we are speaking about a culture and system that has existed for a very long time and in which individuals have a vested interest in maintaining.
For me however, I would like to suggest the following ideas:
- Set the Number of Ministries we have
- Amalgamate the Public Service Commission, Personnel Department, Public Management Consulting Division into one Central Body that provides:
- Framework for how Ministries should operate
- Allow Ministries the flexibility in the way in hires public officers, set compensation policy etc.
- Audit Ministries to ensure compliance
- Function as a Appeals body for persons who feel aggrieved by Ministries operations
- Let Ministries set policy directions and provide general oversight for monitoring and evaluation and allow Municipal Corporations to implement and provide services to the general population.
Whether these suggestion are considered or not, the fact remains that in these challenging economic times it can no longer be business as usually. Those who fail to adapt are doomed to failure.
Public Sector Transformation can no longer be looked at in isolation but must be viewed as the engine that can propel Trinidad and Tobago to sustainable development.