Chief public servant, huh! The prime minister?

KhalicBy Arthur Kallick

Grenada Prime Minister Dr Keith Mitchell’s appearance on a local talk show was heralded by a reference to him being the “chief public servant”. Indeed, in the last 40 years of independence, no other sitting prime minister has ventured to reconfigure in the minds of citizens the role and function of this office.

For starters, public servants are appointed by the Public Service Commission (PSC). They are officers of the Crown and exercise their duties without partisan considerations. The public service rules prohibit public officers from holding elected office in a political parties or organisations. Their tenure is permanent in nature, as their continuance in the service of the state is not encumbered by the results of general elections (or so it was envisaged).

Section 81(1) grants the PSC the power to appoint, discipline, transfer or remove public officers. The prime minister, on the other hand is appointed by the governor general pursuant to Chapter IV Section 58(1) of the Constitution cited as” The Executive”. The prime minister therefore operates in a different realm and his conduct in public office is encumbered by a different set of rules and considerations.

What therefore would have motivated the handlers of PM Mitchell to attempt to spin this yarn in the minds of the Grenadian public?

It all started in 1995 with the assumption of office by the New National Party led by Dr Mitchell. He had said privately and publicly that the public service is a fetter to the accomplishment of the objectives of political parties. As a result, there has been a consistent drive to reduce the operating space of the public service and to undermine the role of the permanent secretary. The use of the famous Vote 340 has facilitated the development of a parallel public service staffed by party hacks.

The constitution empowers the prime minister to render an objection in the appointment to the post of permanent secretary. This has been used skillfully to create a climate of self censorship, as public officers are well aware that if they do not act in a manner that is deemed to be ‘politically correct’, they can kiss goodbye to any ambition to achieve the high office of permanent secretary. The concept of a meritocracy, therefore, is banging on a closed door shut tight by the vagaries of partisan political loyalty.

Concurrently, there has been a conscious attempt to redefine the role of minister in relation to the permanent secretary. Ministers now purport to exercise executive authority that is in the purview of the permanent secretary. In fact, a sitting minister described the office of the permanent secretary as the “chief accounting officer”. While the statement is factual, it is intended to diminish the other managerial functions which that office is supposed to perform.

Various issues have arisen, salaries included. It was under the previous NNP administration that whenever public officers get salary increases, which are subject to negotiations with public sector unions, government ministers automatically get the same increases. In most jurisdictions, remuneration for parliamentarians is the subject of deliberations by a select committee of parliament.

The net effect of this strategy is that lines are blurred as to what really is the role of the minister vis a vis the permanent secretary. The result is that the management of the public service and, by extension, the state, wallows in the quagmire of political interference that renders the service demoralised and inefficient. The country now has some 22 permanent secretaries including acting appointments but there are only 12 ministries.

The level of politicisation of the public service has blurred the lines between a professional public service and the political directorate. The only difference is that the directorate occupies office as a result of elections and the others do not. Huh.

Arthur Kallick was born in Trinidad and lived in Grenada until he moved to Canada in the late 1980s after completing secondary school. He has a Master’s in family counselling and child physiology from the University of Toronto. He is now a freelance writer and has been living in Grenada for the past six years, and at present works with Caribbean Family Planning unit as a counsellor

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