(Im)permanence in the Guyana Public Service

Walter B. Alexander

Let us get back to basics to properly understand the role of the Public Service in Guyana over the first or the last sixty years of ministerial government in Guyana. The etymology of the words minister and ministry is helpful in understanding the true meaning of the words, whether we are referring to the minister of government or to the minister of the church. They are both required to serve or to provide services. With respect to the minister of the government, it is the provision of material services, and with respect to the minister of the church, it is the provision of services for the salvation of your soul. When we speak of the former, the services that readily come to mind include: health, education, security and protection, transportation….. Hence, the appointment of a minister is primarily to take responsibility for the relevant and the required services. However, ministers come and ministers go, but the provision of the services goes on forever. Also, governments change, and, therefore, it is the public servants who have a key role in the provision and in the sustainability of the provision of such services. Moreover, it is the public servants who deliver the service to members of the public.

Walter B. Alexander
Walter B. Alexander

The above is not an over-simplification of the issues in government and ministers and public servants, but a reminder of the true purpose of ministerial government. Such issues came to the fore in the period of the sittings of the Waddington Constitution Commission in 1952. There were concerns at that time over the possible undue influence of elected ministers in the administration of the Civil Service, as it was then known. No Public Service Commission was recommended for 1953, and none was established until 1961 when British Guiana attained internal self-government. According to the British Guiana Constitutional Instruments 1961, the Governor appointed the members of the Commission after consultation with the Premier. By the time of Independence in 1966 the members were appointed by the Governor-General acting on the recommendation and on the advice of the Prime Minister. When the 1980 Constitution came into being with an Executive President, the appointment of members was fully in the hands of elected members of government with the President having the upper hand. An amendment to the Constitution in 2001 changed the composition from “not less than five and not more than six members” to “six members” with three of them being appointed by the President after meaningful consultation with Leader of the Opposition. In the final analysis, it is the party in government which can control who will be in the majority on the Commission, and thereby determine who will serve in the Public Service.
Because we were once a British colony, and because we are a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, and because our official language is English (even though most Guyanese cannot speak it), we can make comparisons between our Guyanese Public Service and the British Civil Service. It is said that “the Civil Service Commission (in U.K.) regulates recruitment, ensuring appointments are on merit after fair and open competition. It also helps to promote the Civil
Service values of Honesty, Integrity, Objectivity and Impartiality, and hears complaints under the Civil Service Code.” Furthermore, the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 defines those Recruitment Principles:
* Merit – means the appointment of the best available person; no one must be appointed to a job unless they are competent to do it and the job must be offered to the person who would do it best.
* Fair – means there is no bias in the assessment of candidates. Selection processes must be objective, impartial and applied consistently.
* Open – means that job opportunities must be advertised publicly and potential candidates given reasonable access to information about the job and its requirements, and about the selection process.
One can readily understand that in U.K. systems and mechanisms are in place to ensure that the best candidate(s) win out in the filling of vacancies, while here in Guyana it is often felt that ‘political’ pressure or connections were factors taken into consideration in appointments. This concern can be applied not only in the filling of senior management positions (where the minister legitimately has an interest), but also in lower-level and middle-level posts. Hence, doubt arises in the minds of would-be entrants to the Public Service whether they will obtain fair treatment after choosing to embark on a Public Service career, or there is doubt in the minds of serving members of the Public Service whether their chances of promotion will be unjustly denied. Then it is the reaction of the unfairly treated Public Servant that adversely affects the efficiency of the ministry or department. It is only human that a disgruntled employee cannot give of their best. Worse still is the loss by the entity of that employee’s knowledge and experience of the workings of their ministry or department’s systems and operations, when they decide to migrate or seek early retirement. And you cannot confer experience on hand-picked appointees. With such instances across ministries, departments and Regions, the quality of service is progressively diluted, and a career in the Public Service becomes less attractive. If you add to this scenario the unattractive salaries being offered, you will see more clearly the problem of maintaining competent and experienced staff across the Public Service.
The situation is further compounded by the practice of having long periods of Acting Appointments, even in instances where the incumbents are eligible for promotion by virtue of qualifications and years of experience in the post. There have been cases where officers have acted in positions in excess of five years and they were never appointed. No reason was given. These officers would have gone into retirement with their pensions and gratuities being calculated at the lower salary of their substantive posts. Dissatisfaction and grievance follows with them and their colleagues. This is so, because when the senior officer is acting, their substantive post cannot be filled, and the next in line is also acting and cannot be appointed, and so on down the line. This phenomenon of prolonged acting appointments in the Public Service (and even in the Judicial Service and in the Police Force) have further consequences and implications not fully ventilated in the public domain. On the one hand, the hope of confirmation can compromise your decision-making. On the other hand, the futility of appointment can limit the willingness to perform at your best. There is no need to perform beyond the call of duty, because after all you are human. In such cases, mediocrity becomes a permanent feature of the standard of performance.

The Public Service Ministry
The Public Service Ministry

More mediocrity ensues when positions, senior and junior, are filled by persons being hand-picked and without adequate knowledge of or background for the post. Woe unto the department or section or unit, where the new ‘boss’ is a ‘rank outsider’, or is junior in experience to those whom they supersede. The new officer is unfamiliar with the statutory rules and regulations. Practices which have been time-tested and proven can be abandoned with serious consequences. There is no objection, and no advice is given, or if given, not heeded. It must be noted that the nature of the Public Service requires continuity and permanence in staffing. Orderly advancement based on merit and fairness is one of the surest ways of cultivating and maintaining a satisfied work force, even though there will of necessity be exceptions, but these must be few.

Persons who choose to enter the Public Service and to make it a career must be assured of earned promotion. The alternative makes staff dissatisfied, encourages resignations, leads to wastage of trained and experienced human resources, and also loss of institutional memory. The latter cannot be adequately replaced by modern technology, which is as good as the persons utilizing it.
The quality of performance in the Public Service today is also affected by the growing practice of appointing officers On Contract. On the one hand, contracts help to attract into (and retain in) the Public Service qualified and competent personnel at salaries outside of the regular bands. On the other hand, contracts can be offered to both recruits and serving officers who thereby become compliant because of fear that the two- or three-year contract will not be automatically renewed after its end.
In fact, the non-renewal of a contract is tantamount to a dismissal and the authorities thereby circumvent the due process of investigation, charges and inquiries in the normal scheme of things. Consequently, recruits on contracts do not look forward to a long career in the Public Service, and do not remain long enough to build up a store-house of knowledge of practices, rules and regulations to enhance later performance in the service or to pass on to subordinates or later entrants. At this point, it must be emphasized that there are essential differences between the operation of a ministry or department in the Public Service and a private business organization. In the Public Service, continuity and permanence in staffing are vital for satisfactory delivery of services, even though ministers come and ministers go and governments change. Hence, you cannot always throw out the baby with the bath water.
Looked at in another light, the appointment of persons ‘on contract’ has implications and consequences for the bodies or unions engaged in the collective bargaining for conditions of service – rights and benefits. Contract employees do not need to join the union, or to remain members of the union. Also with the removal of ‘Agency Shop’ the union suffers. With particular reference to the Guyana Public Service Union, we have seen a decline in membership. This is translated into a decline in revenue. This means less financial resources to maintain a vibrant and growing entity to bargain for reasonable benefits for workers now and in the future. Furthermore, the union eventually loses mature and experienced members, who by their departure are no longer available to train and guide the next generation of members.
In other countries of the Caribbean, and even further afield, Public Service unions still play a major role in the negotiations of conditions of service for their members. Here in Guyana the bargaining agency has been weakened over the years, and by circumstances beyond the control of the union.
The furtherance of the careers of members of the Public Service can also be adversely affected by the absence of a functioning Public Service Appellate Tribunal. For more than five years there has been no chairman. This seems now to be a permanent situation. As a result, when officers have grievances about decisions of the Public Service Commission, there is no Tribunal to appeal to. Their only recourse is to take the matter to the Courts, and this is both a costly matter and time-consuming, given the length of time cases last in the Courts.
Finally, in amending the Constitution of Guyana in 2001, Members of Parliament in their wisdom stipulated according to Article 212FF that “the operating procedures for choosing members of a commission are such as would minimize the influence of the Executive and maximize public perception in the operations of the commission.” However, according to prevailing practices in the Public Service today, the manipulations of careers in the Public Service make careers either permanent or impermanent, or both, and the quality of service to the public declines.

(Walter B. Alexander is a Retired Deputy Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Education, and a former Lecturer at the University of Guyana)

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