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Demming: Don’t blame public servants for everything; leadership is taking responsibility

It is easy to blame public servants’ ‘mistakes’ for an eight-month delay in appointing the Board of the Trinidad and Tobago Securities and Exchange Commission (TTSEC) as reported in a recent newspaper article. 

Public servants have become the most recent whipping horse of a government whose inaction contributes to the poor quality performance of the public service. Between 2015 and today, there is no discernible improvement in service delivery at our government offices.

Photo: Minister of Finance Colm Imbert.
(Copyright Office of the Parliament 2020)

As an aside, I recently tried to make an appointment with the Companies Registry and discovered that there is a difference between ‘unavailable, not available and not yet available’. The result is that I cannot make an online appointment for the foreseeable future.  

This is not simply Public Service inefficiency, it is an example of systemic failure.  If you take a poor analog system and put it online, it will result in a worse online system.

Our systems are crumbling and there is no clear indication of when and how they will be re-designed or improved. There is a lot of chatter about digital transformation but specific attention must be paid to the people who will continue to underpin the systemic changes upon which we must embark.

Public blaming and shaming of the public servants is actually counterproductive and will not inspire people to make their best contribution. Instead of blaming, leaders must take responsibility and reflect on the role they played—in what was, in this case, an eight-month delay.  

Image: The Trinidad and Tobago Securities and Exchange Commission (TTSEC) logo.

Oftentimes, it is not the public servant to be blamed, but the leaders who still believe in command-and-control as an appropriate leadership strategy and refuse to allow public servants to get on with the job as best as they can.

The public blaming and shaming simply communicated the mindset of the Minister of Finance and underlined his disrespect for the public servants who have to continue to turn up and try to do their best, while cognisant of his disdain for them. 

It is standard operating procedure for a file to have been created which tracks how this eight-month delay occurred. It would be useful to use that file as a case study to improve the system rather than using the whip in an attempt to change behaviour.

Public servants are the link between the government and the public. Without them, the government absolutely cannot function. 

No minister can handle all the work generated by their mission. Capable people must act as buffers and translators between the public and any minister. So public servants must be led in a manner that facilitates productivity and goal attainment.

Photo: Minister of Finance Colm Imbert (centre) poses with the Central Bank Board in February 2019.

Effective leaders accept responsibility for the decisions and outcomes of their organisation. It is time for our leaders to stop the blame game and begin to nurture a culture of taking responsibility and being accountable; but it begins with them demonstrating their willingness to be accountable and transparent.  

Just as the leader is smug and boastful when there is success, he/she must step up to the plate and accept that the buck stops with them.  

The 33rd president of the United States, Harry S Truman, is credited with a desk sign that read “The buck stops here”, which was his motto.  

Our current politicians would be well advised to embrace that notion and take full responsibility, especially when things go wrong, instead of blaming others.

About Dennise Demming

Dennise Demming
Dennise Demming grew up in East Dry River, Port of Spain and has more than 30 years experience as a Communication Strategist, Political Commentator and Event Planner. She has 15 years experience lecturing Business Communications at UWI and is the co-licensee for TEDxPortofSpain. Dennise holds an MBA, a B.Sc. in Political Science & Public Administration and a certificate Mass Communications from UWI.

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7 comments

  1. Madam Demming, you have hit the nail squarely on the head! You are on point.

    If I may be frank and realistic, effective leadership/management has unfortunately been lacking generally in our country since we assumed responsibility for ourselves. Let’s face it, management is not one of our strong points.

    I have nevertheless noted that within recent years, focus is being directed to leadership/management as the main causative factor for our many failures. In the past, every reason other than would be cited.

    Indisputably, however, our forte is ‘talking the talk’.

  2. DD, I think it is useful to point out that, in North America, according to my dictionary, ‘a buck’ is also ‘a dollar.’

    Perhaps the sloppiness and all the other negatives you highlight permit the ministers to (mis-)see on their desks–and be guided by–“The bucks stop here”?

  3. The buck stops with each individual. The mentality of public servants and customer service in Trinidad on the whole needs to change. Yes leadership should be held accountable but staff too. The staff can be very effective in undermining leadership especially when their first thought is that the union will support their actions. So yes it is high time public servants are made accountable too.

    • While the buck stops with each individual, leadership determines/influences the mentality of public servants and customer service in Trinidad. This principle applies to all aspects of life generally.

      I agree that it is high time public servants are made accountable but that cannot be achieved without effective leadership/management. Accountability starts from the top and all else will automatically follow.