Bottom-up advisory relationship in public service has been overturned

Dear Editor,

My colleagues, in reminiscing with me, reminded that there was a form of what is now ‘regional administration’ since the old colonial times. In the Civil Service of the day were appointed appropriately selected civil (now public) servants to be District Commissioners – along the coastland, as well as in what was known as the ‘Interior’. They were endowed with both organisational and personal authority, and carried with them an aura that was generally respected by other officers, like District Medical Officers, Senior Police Officers with whom they collaborated, as well as the populace they served. Integrity was a common attribute of that level of performers.

All the latter were full time career officers who were transferable and promotable across ‘districts’.

The occasion of the conversation was the substantive differential observed in today’s Public Service structure, the rigidity of which hardly allows for transfers, that would encourage the broadening of knowledge and experience.Underpinning the old process of promotion and development, was the conduct of annual performance appraisals, even though it was juxtaposed, somewhat illogically, with the practice of recognising seniority in service. The performance appraisal exercise was primarily to decide on the individual award of increments in the respective scales.

The point was that the Civil Service, and even the early transitioned Public Service, continued for some time to be a professional service, which incidentally was founded on everyone having to undergo a medical test to qualify for entry. Personally I could never forget when the foreign doctor (one of many in those days) concluded that I was fit for work because he approved the brand of rum I drank – part of the questionnaire that had to be completed, including a physical examination.

What a difference these days!

What is the argument that justifies the position of Regional Executive Officer as a ‘political appointment’ – usually non-transferrable; but certainly replaceable, almost by moods and swings? What are usually brought to this office are novices, but who are virtually ranked with the level of a Deputy Permanent Secretary. Unfortunately these ‘novitiates’ are apparently content with their status, and by their performance few could claim legitimate aspirations to higher office. What a waste! But then this category of staff abounds in today’s Public Service. They are called ‘contracted employees’ – not necessarily to be construed as constructive, for the inexperience is palpable (without certification of physical fitness).

Meanwhile the increment has been transformed into semi-annual gratuity of 22.5% of monthly salary – which over two years cumulates to a respectable 90% increase with little, if any, performance evaluation, that is apart from the complaints reported in the press from time to time.

In the milieu the concept of a salary scale is sufficiently irrelevant as to be an anachronism. Incidentally the Commission of Inquiry Report into the Public Service (2016) had this to say on the relevant issue of ‘Bunching’ in Salary Grades.

“4.2.1.1: Bunching in Grades

194. It has been brought to our attention that Bunching of salaries is a common feature in the Public Service. The perception is that the imposed across-the-board increases every year, without regard to merit movements, has brought persons with years of service to be closely aligned with new recruits coming into the Service; thus, creating a feeling of disenchantment among employees of long service whose performance and years of service are not considered.”

The whole point of having a professional Public Service, a construct inherited from the British, and still observed in some Caricom and Commonwealth member states, was to have a sustainable capacity of advice for incoming political newcomers.

Detrimentally, however, the bottom-up advisory relationship has been overturned into a top-down pontificatory one – to whose benefit remains a matter of concern.

In the circumstances one is left to wonder which is the Oil and which the Gas?

Yours faithfully,

E.B. John

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