A stint in Parliament does not prepare anyone for proper management of a government ministry

Dear Editor,

Our system of government is supposed to be the Westminster system, but it is not in use in Guyana today. What I see in use today is what I have called the West Indian Minister system, which is of itself a ridiculous concept.

The true Westminster system visualizes that the permanent secretaries will be the real functionaries in the system. I am using this definition from the Commonwealth Library paper ‘Managing Change. The Evolving Role of Top Public Servants.’ It tells us that, “In the Westminster model of government, the Permanent Secretary is the administrative head of a department or ministry. They are ‘permanent’ in the sense that they are normally career civil servants who have tenure beyond the life of any particular government. This system, in which the permanent public service extends to the topmost levels of public administration, is one of the defining characteristics of the Westminster model,”

The problem is simple: you can’t take a man who was not functioning in any capacity as a manager in his life and put him in charge of a multibillion dollar ministry and think that he will be successful. To date this has been a total failure for Guyana and it’s about to make a massive impact on our lives, with bad decisions and policies to do with this oil find. Recently I saw Mr Drayton being discussed in the letter columns and it is right that he should be discussed, since he was an outstanding Permanent Secretary and made Mrs Jagan look good as Minister of Labour Health and Housing.

In the US for example, after an election in November every 4 years, there is a handing over period of several months to the new President, who is sworn in on January 20th of the next year, and his term of office officially starts exactly at 12 noon on that date whether he is sworn in or not. During that time November to January, the heads of the government departments (the Secretaries) who are not permanent, are all usually changed, and the new President looks around the US for the most knowledgeable and respected people in the country, who have his political policy mindset, to fill those positions, unless the President is entering a second term in which case he normally carries his original cabinet with him, since he probably campaigned on their strength. Remembering always that the American president is an executive President as is ours, and the buck stops with him, so he is ultimately responsible for everything going on in his government.

Unlike America, the day after the elections in Guyana the new President can be sworn in since he inherits his complete government fully staffed according to the definition, “with a permanent public service which extends to the topmost levels of public administration which is one of the defining characteristics of the Westminster model.” This raises a few questions in my mind: we have permanent secretaries in Guyana who are very political; they not only write political letters in the newspapers, they actually campaign with the political parties in power, which is totally forbidden in England, where the Westminster system was created. If I were made a minister and inherited such a permanent secretary I would dismiss him immediately on the grounds that he broke the law. But it is happening all the time in Guyana, where permanent secretaries are being removed by new government ministers for the very qualifications they must have to function properly, ie because they are too independent or will not allow themselves to become political lackeys and rubber stamp wrongdoing by ministers. It is the same thing with our legal system. We have a situation now in Guyana where the President and the Leader of the Opposition cannot agree on a chief justice and chancellor and it’s an impasse. The problem is that in my opinion the solution cannot be to bring a judge from the Caribbean whose reputation for being prompt with judgements has been questioned by the Bar Association of Belize, and in addition, our acting Chief Justice has ruled against our President in one matter and removing her could give the appearance of being related to her independence. So appoint the two ladies. No one will cry about them. And some of the suspicions about our judicial system will inevitably disappear.

But back to the permanent secretaries: What we are doing completely defeats the concept of a non-political, highly trained and qualified group of managers who will perform the functions which our constitution gives them the power to do, impartially without fear or favour. The winner-take-all nonsense has not worked for us, and we have to abandon it. The ministers who are not trained in any form of management or administration and are constantly apologizing to us for their mistakes is not acceptable; they took the job and we expect that they will function at the highest level from day one guided by their good permanent secretaries.

Incidentally in America where these things are analyzed, it is believed that governors make better presidents than senators, since they have to manage the budget of their particular states and so make better chief executives. So if anyone thinks that a stint in parliament prepares anyone for the proper management of a government ministry, think again; a lot of the people in parliament don’t even read the standing orders, unless someone makes an issue of any section of them.

This situation is hurting us badly as a nation. Every time I look at the newspapers I see that we don’t have proper management in Guyana; everything is wrong with the decisions we are making, and the arrogance that goes along with this incompetence is incomprehensible. I know that most Guyanese have not addressed these problems in our administration, I am not even sure how many are actually aware of the reasons why they exist, but if we are to progress we have to address them; you can’t solve a problem until you understand what is causing it. And this is my attempt to show what I think is causing it. We have a system of government which is wrong and not functioning for us; no matter how much oil we find it will not bring prosperity until we solve this problem of good governance. If we can’t remove the racial division among us, the next best thing is to put in place the government we are supposed to have, ie highly trained and qualified managers, not people who have no track record of success in their lives but are now making all our decisions for us and doing it badly.   What do the ministers in England do? This is what the sources tell us, “a fundamental constitutional principle in the British Westminster parliamentary system, is that Ministers are responsible to the parliament for the conduct of their ministry and government as a whole.”

Yours faithfully,

Tony Vieira

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