“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” – Cassius, in William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” (Act I, Scene III)
“The buck stops here.” – sign of the desk of Harry S Truman, US President, 1945-1953
We agree with the Prime Minister’s notion that something is wrong, very wrong, with how the Government went about dismissing scores of civil servants, most of them at or near the bottom rung of the government service ladder.
We are not prepared – yet – to go so far as to agree with her supposition of sabotage at work. We have no supporting evidence for this strong assertion, and neither, we suggest, does she. If she is possession of such information, then it should be presented to the people, especially in the name of those who find themselves out of work; and heads should, to the extent that it is possible in the labyrinthine world of public administration in Barbados, roll.
We expect, then, that the Prime Minister will take full responsibility, beyond sincere apologies, for the mess that has been the lopping off of 1,500 jobs – Barbadians, human beings, mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, sons and daughters – from the public payroll, with the promise of more staff cuts to follow.
We are aware of a process that has reeked of arbitrariness; of names on lists being circulated by WhatsApp messages even before those on the list are informed on their fate; of individuals chopped then replaced because someone on high made their faces shine upon them, was gracious unto them and lifted their countenance upon them; of loyal, steadfast workers who have given a decade of faithful service only to find themselves on the chopping block merely because no one had seen fit to appoint them to secure tenure.
We also know of some dedicated staff who have left behind others, some lazy, problematic workers who by virtue of tenure cling with tenacity to jobs undeserved and under-serving.
The unions have already brought to the public’s attention instances in which people were unceremoniously told the same day that it was to be their last, only to be left with mere word instead of final pay cheques or notice of what options for redeployment, reemployment or retooling they might have.
Questions must be asked of the Personnel Administration Division as to what did this department know about its ministerial fiat and when did it know it. The PAD’s role is to dispose what Cabinet proposes by deploying the human resources at its disposal in accordance with the Public Service Act and the Constitution. It is not an island, entire unto itself. It is not God, though it has lately taken on the mantle of near-divinity over the mortals who inhabit the Civil Service. Rather like Her Majesty’s Prisons, it has rewarded inmates for time served rather than promoted or supported them on merit – as was once the case when the British ruled the Barbados Civil Service and in our early years as a sovereign nation.
According to the Constitution, Cabinet is responsible for the “general direction and control” of the government of Barbados. It is ministers, not the Head of the Civil Service, who set policy. It is they who decided to slash the payroll as part of an Economic Reconstruction and Transformation programme called BERT. Theirs was the idea for Re Re (with apologies to Rihanna) for a Retool and Retraining Programme for retrenched workers, intended to be the second phase of BERT.
We have heard far less of the details of this programme, and we submit that the failure to communicate both internally and externally on the intentions, intricacies and implications of “Re Re” for the displaced public workers simultaneously has contributed to this messy act of displacement. For this we can hold no entity responsible save the Cabinet of Barbados, of whom the Prime Minister has the honour to chair.
Blaming civil servants for the implementation of public policy is a pastime of Barbadian politicians long past its sell-by date. Errol Walton Barrow, whose constitutional amendment of 1974 is oft-considered the original dagger to the heart of an independent and impartial Civil Service, is credited with the description of the bureaucracy as an “army of occupation”. He was the first but hardly the last to scapegoat and excoriate public officers.
Owen Seymour Arthur’s tirades against public officers are legendary. He seemed to take great delight in a prime ministerial tradition of calling them at the eleventh hour, disrupting their domestic tranquillity, to “invite” them to join him on some tour or other. But no less legendary is our prime ministers’ cavalier ignorance of the advice offered them by these men and women who serve at the pleasure of the Governor General, the Sovereign’s representative, for (until we the people say otherwise) Her Majesty the Queen is our Head of State, an individual who is expected to be above the political fray, as are the servants of her realm, Barbados.
Indeed, as the Democratic Labour Party took power in the 2008, ministers were overheard grumbling that the proverbial army of occupation was a nest of vipers supportive only of Owen Arthur and the Barbados Labour Party. The irony, then, of this latest diatribe is not lost on us.
And so, past the ineptitude, inertia and insensitivity of the last administration, we come to this one, fresh with an unprecedented mandate from the people of Barbados to do what many feared needed to be done – rescue a proud nation from the ignominy and hardship of being the next most indebted nation to Greece.
Many have been in awe of a prime minister’s visibility, eloquence, command of information and political savvy. They have had two previous terms in which their leader seemed to heed too much the wisdom of Proverbs 17:18, with this famous variation attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “It is better to be silent and thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt”.
Now it is Prime Minister Mottley’s turn to remove any doubt that she has been less than sagacious in her management of a key process of the Government’s economic restructuring. The buck stops with her, constitutionally, legally, and morally. It is her responsibility to ensure that the process of separating people from their salaries and modes of living is handled with care, especially if many of them are expected to come back to the firm to digitise documents and help inaugurate e-Government.
When the People handed the reins of Government to the Prime Minister and 29 fellow MPs all of one political tribe on May 24th last, they were presented with findings of malfeasance and bad dealing within the outgoing administration. Where, then, is the evidence that can otherwise only serve to undermine public confidence in the Civil Service? For despite its many flaws and warts, the public and foreign services of Barbados have held an enviable reputation as one of the most reputable and capable institutions the Caribbean has ever seen. It is this institution, not the mere Barbadian politician, that keeps the lights on, and has prompted the world’s top civil servant – the United Nations secretary general no less – to say that Barbados punches well above its weight in international affairs.
Over the years, that crown of glory has been tarnished by internal failures and external pressures. But blaming the Public Service for poor execution of public policy is a fault not of underlings nor in the stars but of Caesar.