By Jenique Belgrave
Chief Justice Sir Patterson Cheltenham wants to see major changes to the “ill-suited” law governing the civil service, including an end to promotion based on length of tenure rather than performance.
Pulling no punches as he addressed the Ministry of the Public Service’s Human Resource Conference on Thursday, he criticised the public sector for being stuck on “fossilised practices” and advised that the “shackles” of the Public Service Act be removed to increase productivity and encourage creativity.
Sir Patterson described the Act as “a compromise between top civil servants who are scared out their wits and the unions who said ‘we have to make sure we keep our membership so, therefore, make sure people are promoted on the basis of being there for a long time’.”
“It’s not about being able to do the job but being there for a long time – the funny expression they call supersession. What nonsense! Pause for a minute. Do you think Microsoft or any of those companies operate on the basis of that? Where do you think they would be?” he asked the gathering at the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre.
“So you have here a Public Service Act that is ill-suited – if you were to do a granular analysis of it – for equipping persons with the right legal environment in which to achieve leadership, excellence, and innovation. Some of the shackles need to be removed, plain and simple.”
The CJ stressed that if the legal context within which the civil service is operating is so restrictive that it hampers excellence, innovation and leadership, there will be “trouble.”
He said that in order to achieve excellence, the public sector must move away from its “fossilised practices and thinking”.
“There are people who came into a system and saw something being done one way and have somehow persuaded themselves, without difficulty, that this is the only way they can achieve anything. It’s convenient; it allows you to turn up to work which starts at 8:30 and you get there for 8:30 when really and truly you should get there for 8:15. So when work ends at 4:30, you don’t start putting on makeup at four o’clock, because you are cheating your employer. Or when everybody seems to think that once there is a funeral, they can go and ask for half-day,” he said.
Charging that the public service frowns on much-needed creativity, he added: “Innovation requires a certain irreverence in thinking and a confidence to challenge received wisdom and practices. The notion ‘I came and found it like this’, what rubbish! You have to look at every process and ask what value it adds and whether it is legal. The ‘this is how we do it so we cannot change it’, is that innovation? That is fossilised thinking. You will go nowhere. The country is permanently parked.”
Sir Patterson also advised the public sector HR practitioners attending the conference to pay attention to cases against employers before the law courts and the Employment Rights Tribunal to be better advised on the labour law.
Saying that sometimes “clowns” are placed in leadership roles, he highlighted the need for quality leadership within the sector. He emphasised these individuals must be confident and not engage in pettiness or make inappropriate judgements about their staff.
Echoing several of the Chief Justice’s sentiments, Chairman of the Protective Services Commission Colin ‘Tony’ Walcott said it is necessary to “discard the myth” that seniority denotes experience and strong skill sets.
“Officers who graduated from university 25 years ago and did not undergo additional training or study in the intervening years should not be running to the union when they are overlooked for promotion,” he said.
“Just as medical doctors have credits for Continuing Medical Education and accountants must have credits for Continuing Professional Education, public officers can be identified or volunteer for additional training to improve their skill levels in particular areas and can be promoted on their acquired skills and not through seniority.”
Walcott added that it was time for the public service to implement a more flexible rewards and recognition system to motivate high achievers as it must consider whether it is fair that model employees received the same salary adjustments as those who showed up late and left early most days.
He insisted that line managers must discipline workers as he stressed that transferring an individual to another department did not solve the issue but was akin to “kicking the can down the road”.
Walcott also urged a relook at the study leave policy.
He suggested that workers who are expanding their knowledge in their professions could receive at least half pay and be bonded to the sector for a number of years, instead of being forced to take no-pay leave.