Barbados is in a state of crisis, and what is now required to effect a rescue of our country is a massive injection of accountability and people participation in our system of national governance.
In my opinion, the best and perhaps the only way to achieve this, is to establish a serious and meaningful system of community-based Local Government that would enable ordinary citizens to exercise some control over the ship of state and to contribute desperately needed creativity, intelligence and energy to the administration of the country’s public affairs.
And please don’t tell me about the currently existing system of so-called Constituency Councils, for that is a sham! It is nothing more than an unelected partisan appendage of the currently ruling Democratic Labour Party administration, and is beholden to the Government minister who ultimately sanctions the selection of all of the so-called councillors. Indeed, this institution is so useless that the only thing it is known for is the staging of the annual David Thompson Memorial Football Competition.
No, I am talking about a serious system of local comunity-based governance that is based on the principle of elections; that is autonomous and not subject to the diktat of any Government minister; and that is given a mandate to carry out substantial and critical public functions.
Such a system of Local Government could be structured around the currently existing 30 political constituencies, with the residents of each polling district in a constituency being permitted to vote for and elect two representatives to sit on the Local Government Council of their constituency.
All candidates would be individuals who are resident in the polling district, and they should be required to contest the election as individuals and NOT as representatives of any political party or other institution. Furthermore, no electioneering should be permitted in polling district elections other than having the Electoral and Boundaries Commission (EBC) publish the CVs of each candidate, and each candidate being permitted to address their fellow residents at a town hall meeting convened by the EBC. And, very importantly, all elected councillors will serve on a totally voluntary basis.
This type of electoral exercise would produce 30 Local Government Councils composed of some 20 members each, thereby constituting an overall pool of 600 Local Government councillors.
In addition, each Local Government Council would elect its own presiding officers — Chairman, Secretary and Treasurer– and will meet regularly as a Council in order to make decisions about and coordinate the constituency-based work of the Local Government Council.
In addition, the 30 Council chairpersons would also regularly meet together in a Chairpersons’ Caucus under a revolving chairmanship, to make decisions about and coordinate the national duties of the pool of 600 councillors.
And since this Local Government system will be taking over some of the functions that are currently performed by the central Government, our Parliament would include an annual financial allocation in the Government’s annual Budget to be divided equally among the 30 Local Government Councils – financial allocations that would be audited every year by the Auditor General. (Parliament could also free up additional funds by curtailing the currently existing practice of Government annually giving money to the MPs of the two traditional political parties to pay the salaries of their constituency secretaries.)
Each Local Government Council would be required to establish a modest office in the geographical area of the constituency that it represents, and to have attached to it (perhaps on secondment from central Government) a full time professional social worker.
Each Local Government Council would perform the following functions or services for the people of their communities :-
1. Policing of Government agencies
The pool of 600 Local Government Councillors will be available to carry out a number of national duties, including – for want of a better word – “policing” several important Government agencies.
There are many Government agencies that are supposed to be serving the Barbadian public, but which are falling far short in their performance.
Prime examples would be the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (patients dying due to negligence and equipment failure) and the Barbados Water Authority (a major sewage crisis on the south coast of the island). The existence of some 600 Local Government Councillors would make it possible to set up a number of “Oversight or Public Accountability Committees” to investigate and “police” the public service operations of all Government agencies that interact with and provide critical services to the public. For example, the members of a QEH Oversight or Public Accountability Committee would be given the right (by appropriate legally binding regulations) to walk into and inspect any department of the QEH; to receive complaints from the public; and to hold meetings with the QEH Board in order to have discussions about the problems and to suggest and demand accountability and remedies. Similar Oversight or Public Accountability Committees would police the Transport Board, the National Housing Corporation, the Barbados Water Authority, the Royal Barbados Police Force, the Welfare Department, the Government Polyclinics, and the list goes on.
2. Office of Contractor General
Yet another critical area of national life that Local Government Councillors could usefully help to police is the awarding of Government contracts. At present, individual Government ministers play key, and even determining, roles in the awarding of contracts pertaining to their ministries, and as a result, the system is vulnerable to rampant corruption. The solution is to establish a centralized, insulated, and autonomous “Office of Contractor General” to deal with the awarding of all major Government contracts, and to permit representatives of the Local Government system (in their capacitiy as the eyes, ears and conscience of the people) to exercise an oversight role in relation to any such office. The ultimate role of the councillors will be to ensure that every precious dollar of the taxpayers’ money is properly accounted for!
3. Community well being teams
It would be the duty of each Local Government Council to ensure that troubled or deprived children, and the elderly, needy, and disabled residents of their Council area are all properly looked after, and that no-one is permitted to fall through the proverbial cracks. Thus, a Community Well being Team – organized and led by the professional social worker assigned to the Council – would be established to check on, and to procure and provide assistance for such ‘at risk’ residents. Indeed, Councils – with the assistance of their social workers – will liaise with such agencies as the National Assistance Board, theWelfare Department, the Division of Youth Affairs, the Ministry of Education, the National Disabilities Unit, the Department of Emergency Management (DEM), BARP, and local churches to ensure that no one is neglected.
Furthermore, Councils will pay special attention to the well being of elderly residents who are in need of caregiver services, and will organize training for persons who are willing to undertake caregiver duties for elderly members of their family.
Where there are emergency cases of garbage pile-ups, excessive overgrown bush, or potholes in the minor roads of the constituency, the Council will not have to wait on and beg the Sanitation Service Autrhority, the National Conservation Commission, or the Ministry of Transport and Works for assistance. Instead, the Council will be able to respond immediately and independently by contracting a community-based service provider and his or her local community-based workers to clear away the health hazard or to carry out limited patching of the road. In addition, the Council would be mandated to engage in general environmental and anti-littering campaigns in the communities that make up the Council area, as well as to undertake responsibility — in collaboration with the DEM — for clean up and repair operations that may be required in the wake of hurricane and storm systems.
The Ministry of Education would be required to consult with the Local Government Council on the appointment of Boards of Management of all Government schools within the Council area, and to permit at least one councillor to sit on each school board. A much closer relationship between schools and the communities in which they are located will emerge as a result of this.
The Local Government Council will supplement the work of the central Government Welfare Department by administering an “Emergency Local Welfare Fund” for residents, as well as for students attending schools within the council area.
7. Community development and sports
Local Government Councils will assume responsibility for establishing Boards of Management of the Community Centres (and community playing fields) within the council area, and – in collaboration with the National Sports Council and the Community Development Department – for establishing and overseeing community development and sports programmes.
8. Vendors’ licences
Local Government Councils would also be responsible for the granting of vendor’s licences within the council area and for identifying locations where wayside vendors would be permitted to operate.
9. Community forum
Provision will be made in the Rules or Standing Orders of Parliament obligating both the House of Assembly and the Senate to give consideration to all recommendations made to them by Local Government Councils in relation to all parliamentary Bills. And the Local Government Councils, in turn, would be required to hold regular public community forums where the residents of the council area will meet under the auspices of their Local Government Council, to discuss parlimentary Bills and any other relevant aspects of the public affairs of the country.
10. Planning permission
The Town and Country Planning Department and the Ministry of Economic Affairs would be required to consult with the Local Government Council before deciding whether to approve applications for major construction or other development projects within the council area. In addition, councils would be expected to play an important role in the putting together of Government’s development plans and annual budgets by advising the various ministries and Government departments as to the needs of their council areas for such things as roads, housing, health clinics, jobs, and sporting / recreational facilities.
If implemented, this system of Local Government would bring thousands of new citizens into public life and would be a training ground for future national leaders. It would also renew and reinvigorate the civic life and spirit of our country, eradicate corruption, and help to raise standards throughout the public sector.
And most importantly, it would create a state of affairs in which responsibility for the public affairs of Barbados — responsibility for the failures and the successes — would reside not with a mere 30 Members of Parliament, but with the entire body of citizens.
Maybe, just maybe, we can still save Barbados through a system of Local Community-based Government. It is certainly worth a try.