The warning about drinking water issued by the American Embassy has again turned our attention firmly back to the debacle of the south coast sewage system. Actually let me not seek to be myopic in outlining this reflection. The advisory should make us ponder broadly about water management in Barbados and the decisions to be made about the environmental issues of this age.
If we examine the situation on the south coast at the most minute level it raises serious inefficiencies in our systems of administration. We know that the people working in the consultative and managerial positions within the Barbados Water Authority warned of the imminent travesty which was approaching some months before the actual sewage breaches started. However, as has been the case for some years in our system of civil service administration and political directorate policy making, there is a seeming chasm between required action and the directive for action. Let me expand over the next few paragraphs.
Since we are in the stage of our election cycle where we usually discuss the ways that we can deepen our system of governance and make it more effective, I have a suggestion to table which addresses the dark space between needed action and implementation. I think the national consensus is that there needs to be more personal and professional accountability in the decision making process.
That is to say, instead of an opaque agent acting on behalf of this thing we call the Government of Barbados more actions have to be tied to particular functions of particular posts – people have to be willing to stand or fall on the decisions they make or do not make.
We once had before, in the execution of Cabinet Government, the threat of sacking by the Prime Minister as one system which kept ministers in touch with their ministries and the publics they serve. The power of the Prime Minister in a Cabinet to hire and fire is a critical element which keeps the heavy power vested in ministers under check. Our system will be better served when we return to sanctioning ministers in this way for non-performance.
The other strategy is perhaps the most novel, but can create an almost instant relationship between administration and management on the one side, and politics and policy on the other. I believe that the top tier of the civil service responsible for implementation and accountability should be voted for and tied to the fate of the Government which they serve.
Some may argue that this stands to widen the negatives associated with our current election system – the vote buying and the use of campaign finance to garner favour. While I accept the critique I will also make the point that we have accepted that this side of our system of democracy also needs overhaul and the solutions to those issues can be treated there.
Currently the people who are the most accountable for the Government purse are not tied to the policymakers who demand what the money should be spent on. Permanent Secretaries of ministries are the chief accounting officers and to my mind, integrity legislation, which places demands on ministers without also bringing them into accountability, only leaves room for loophole arrangements to be easily made. That loophole can perhaps be changed without permanent secretaries being politically elected, but what of their investment in the successes and failures of Government?
I think we are fooling ourselves if we believe two years shy of the end of the second decade of the 21st century that the civil service is above political involvement and interference. Perhaps to acknowledge the politics in the administrative arm of our Government and to streamline it, is our stronger option for moving our management system forward.
The other thing which this crisis has brought out is how careless and reckless we are with the environment in Barbados. We still believe that the sea will clean itself. We still believe that it is an area where we can dump things and, since we cannot see the refuse, no harm will be done. There are very few people, including some in management who do not understand the connections between the Graeme Hall Swamp system, the sea around us and rainfall.
It is a grand indictment on the Ministry of Environment that after having been around since the 1970s there seems to be no change in the attitudes associated with Barbados’ environment. In fact, based on being an organ of a Government that has allowed raw sewage to flow above ground level at various points for almost two years, the Ministry of the Environment looks to be more complicit in the problem than offering leadership to resolve it.
The only way to characterize what continues to happen on the south coast is that the occurrence and the management of it is a complete and total shame. It was the point at which Barbados not only stopped punching above its weight, but was also seen to have stopped punching at all. As complex as the problem is, the sure way to make it worse is to do nothing. We have to find some starting point, start there and keep going until the end – even the maddest characters in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland knew that.