The public policy forum

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Mr Victor Poyotte is a retired public officer with twenty-six years public service experience, a decade of regional project management work with the CIDA funded OECS Eastern Caribbean Economic Management Programme (ECEMP) and the British funded Caribbean Overseas Territories Government Accounting Reform (COTGAR) Project, both of which were implemented by the firm CRC Sogema of Montreal Canada.

By Victor Poyotte

The Public Policy Forum is intended to serve as an avenue through which professionals in the field of public administration can use their knowledge, skills, and experiences to enlighten and educate all Saint Lucians’ on issues of public governance and public policy that affect their daily lives. The collaboration with Caribbean News Global (CNG) is helping to reach interested persons around the world. Let me take this opportunity to thank the editor for agreeing to publish my articles.

Oh no, prime minister. You’ve got it all wrong, public policy is the job of public officers.

Listening to news reports on Tuesday evening, May 19, 2020, I heard the prime minister of Saint Lucia make the surprising remark, “Stop it. It is not your job to tell the government how to run the government. You are a component of government and so saying you do not like this project you do not like that project, that is for the electorate of this country to determine when the elections come.”

He also stated that salaries account for 50 percent of government expenses, you can’t cut debt, that is the problem you have in the short run and that you need persons to sit around the table as mature, mutual respect partners to solve the problem.

This article is intended to show the prime minister that he has it all wrong on the role of public officers. The article will also point out to the prime minister, the need to make a clear distinction between the role of public officers, as employees of the government and the role of public-sector unions as bargaining agents for public officers.

Concept of policy

A policy is described as a set of principles used to guide the decisions and actions of leaders of any organization. For clarity and consistency of use, a policy is usually documented as a statement of intent along with clear procedures or protocols for implementation and enforcement.

Administrative or public policy?

Generally, the government sector may introduce administrative or public policies to carry out day to day internal operational activities. On the one hand, Cabinet may introduce an administrative policy to guide the decisions and actions of public managers and support personnel. On the other hand, Cabinet may introduce public policy to guide the decisions and actions of citizens and residents of the country. In this article, I will use the term public policy to mean any decision made or not made by the government of Saint Lucia or any action taken or not taken by the government.

Need for public policy

The government is required to formulate public policy to address product or service-related problems that can be described as either well-structured or ill-structured. A public policy problem is applicable to all citizens, sectors and industries as well as to business and civil society organizations of the country. Well-structured problems are considered quite simple and easy to deal with by designing and implementing a comprehensive one-time solution. For example, if citizens of a community complain about the lack of a piece of medical equipment at their health facility, it will be an easy decision for the government to make a budgetary allocation to procure replacement equipment for the facility.

Problems that are ill-structured on the other hand, are complex and require the design and implementation of a long-term solution that can only be addressed using an incremental approach. For example, citizens complain about the quality of health services provided at the St Jude hospital due to the failure of the government to complete the reconstruction of the hospital.

In such a case, the government will have a greater challenge to find the financial resources required to address this problem which involves the construction of building facilities, procurement of medical equipment, machinery, and the recruitment of skilled personnel for the health service. As the records will show, resolving such a problem requires an incremental or phased approach over a period of time.

Role of public officers in public policy

With due respect, prime minister, public officers have a critical role to play in the public policy process from policy analysis to formulation through to implementation and enforcement. A summary of the roles played by public officers at each stage of the policy process is as follows:

  • Stage 1: Public officers conduct research and analysis of public policy proposals;
  • Stage 2: Public officers use the results of the policy analysis, to recommend policy by submitting “Memorandum to the Cabinet” for the Ministers to consider;
  • Stage 3: The Cabinet of ministers would consider each memorandum and confirm its decision by approving, deferring or rejecting the policy proposal;
  • Stage 4: The office of the Cabinet secretary would communicate the decision of the Cabinet of ministers to the relevant public agency in the form of a Cabinet Conclusion;
  • Stage 5: Public officers would review the Cabinet Conclusions, then put mechanisms in place to implement and enforce provisions of the approved public policy.

Role of public sector unions in public policy

Public sector unions are the certified “bargaining agents” for public officers, and in that capacity, negotiate with government as the employer for better working conditions, compensation, and job security on behalf of its members. The public sector unions are civil society institutions that exist to represent, advance, and protect the interest of their members.

You are dead wrong if you believe that they make up a component of the government administrative apparatus. As bargaining agents, the unions have every right to question the public policy choices made or actions taken by the government, particularly when these policies are likely to have a negative impact on the working conditions, compensation, and job security of their members.

Stakeholder participation

Running a government is not only the business of the prime minister and his Cabinet of ministers alone. Most citizens have come to expect that their government will invite them as key stakeholders to participate in public policy decisions that have a direct effect on their daily lives. Common methods of consultations used by the government to obtain feedback from citizens on proposed community or national plans, programs, and projects include town hall meetings, one-on-one sessions, focus group meetings, and stakeholder conferences. The government may also conduct satisfaction surveys among citizens to assess the impact of public policies on them after they have been implemented.

Mature and mutual respect partners

By letter dated May 22, 2020, addressed to the president of the Trade Union Federation (TUF), the prime minister outlined a wide range of challenges currently facing the government due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, along with projected revenue shortfalls and expenditure obligations. He claimed to have already taken steps to meet with all key stakeholders in the private sector but chose not to share the commitments made by that entity. He proposed a three-months “short-term salary adjustments,” comprising salary reduction and wage payment for the TUF to consider accepting and called for the urgent and full cooperation of the trade unions as a means of alleviating the crisis.

In the letter, the prime minister went on to appeal to public officers and their trade union representatives to consider and accept the officer. What I found disturbing was your apparent subtle threat that should the unions not accept the offer, the government would examine its legal options in order to ensure it can continue to function.

You also stated clearly in your letter that we all have to make a sacrifice to ensure that the government can cope with this catastrophic global economic crisis and minimize the further impact on our country. However, you have so far failed to provide us with details of the nature of the sacrifices the political directorate and the private sector intend to make.

Profoundly, the prime minister’s letter to the TUF provided no information on the sacrifices other stakeholders will make and yet, expect the federation to provide a firm response by Monday, May 25, 2020. This is certainly not a mature way for a government to treat such an important stakeholder like public sector employees with mutual respect.

My assessment

The prime minister should stop contradicting yourself. Make up your mind what you want because you cannot have it both ways.

By your admission, you accept the fact that career public officers are a component of government yet you seem unaware that they have the responsibility to provide the political directorate with professional advice on how to run the government. Whether your Cabinet of ministers, the political directorate, chooses to accept their advice or not is the prerogative of the government.

It is unreasonable for your administration to refuse to accept sound advice from public officers and their collective bargaining agents for almost four years. Yet, when faced with a policy problem of your government’s own making, you will call upon the trade unions representing these public officers to sit around the table with you per your dictates as “mature, mutual respect partners” to solve the problem.

Maturity is a two-way street. If you expect the TUF to take you seriously, your government should first provide the trade unions with details of the sacrifices the private sector will make.

Secondly, the political directorate itself must take specific actions to demonstrate its commitment to making a sacrifice. A few areas that your government could consider include:

  • Reducing the size of the current Cabinet of ministers from eleven to six;
  • Eliminating the number of non-established positions created between 2016 and 2020;
  • Reducing the size and number of embassies;
  • Utilizing modern technology tools for meetings of the Cabinet, ministries and departments as far as possible;
  • Identifying areas where savings could be made from reduction in travel and allowances.

Finally, let me draw your attention to a recent statement made by Andrew Como, Governor of New York, who stressed that in the post-COVID-19 environment, “Government must be smart, competent, non-political, non-partisan, fair and effective.” He also stated that “Politicians have to give representation because the people pay them to do so.”

It is unlikely that your government will achieve much by making arrogant statements or intimidating workers and their trade unions to accept proposals they deem unacceptable.

Administrative and public policy making does not work the way you are proposing. It involves more than a process of selective consultation. You should remember that we are living under a democratic government and a dictatorial regime has no place in our political system.

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