By David Jessop
Over the last twelve months the Caribbean has been able to demonstrate through the ballot box that its democracies remain strong.
Despite flaws and low coronavirus virus related turnouts, general elections have taken place in Jamaica, Trinidad, the Dominican Republic, Suriname, Guyana, St Kitts, Anguilla and Montserrat, and the outcome accepted. Even in Guyana, after a lengthy political stand-off, the rule of law prevailed, and its electoral system delivered what most consider to be a fair outcome.
Nevertheless, the problem of matching Caribbean governance to rhetoric continues, with every nation’s capacity to implement what has been promised dependent on the very variable quality, ability, and attitude of the public sector and its agencies.
At best, the higher levels of the administrative arm of governments provide permanence, continuity, experience, as well as options and advice to ministers and, for the most part, act apolitically.
Notwithstanding smallness, many senior officials lead teams able to deliver successful world class outcomes especially in foreign relations, trade policy, security, tourism, and more recently public health.
However, a more common daily experience is to encounter departments that are poorly staffed, where decision making is slow, siloed, bureaucratic, and absent the ability to rapidly implement, requiring frequent recourse to ministers appointed for political or less savoury reasons.
The inherited model of governance in the Anglophone Caribbean and Europe’s dependent territories, for the most part, has little changed over the decades since independence, involving delivery through structures that seek to administer and respond in ways similar to those of the former colonising power.
Recently however, the British government has begun to tear up the model of public administration it bequeathed to much of the region.
In June a senior British politician, Michael Gove, the minister for the Cabinet office, delivered a major speech to the Ditchley Foundation on reforming governance.
Gove argued that there was a pressing need to address the deep sense of citizen disenchantment and belief that the political system has failed them. He suggested that globalisation had served to cement relationships between elites and that growth had principally benefitted the already fortunate. He also observed that rapid changes in science and technology would result in profound economic dislocation, requiring new forms of response and skills.
To address this, he believes, the “crumbling” model of governance that political leaders have inherited and the gulf that has emerged between the people who run government and the public requires a change in the “structure, ambition and organisation” of the British state.
This he said should involve rigorous internal scrutiny and an end to insulation from accountability; the retraining of the public sector; changes in career progression so that officials with expertise become creators of original policy; and experts being brought in from the outside. Ministerially led Cabinet committees must set direction and hold departments to account.
Although it is easy to challenge his argument based on present political practice in the UK, including the bypassing of parliament, ministers unwillingness to any longer be held responsible, multiple policy U-turns, and a desire to blame and remove officials for mistakes that are political, the general intellectual thrust of Gove’s analysis has relevance to the parallel model of governance bequeathed to the Anglophone Caribbean.
Many of the region’s governments lack credibility because of their failure to deliver basic services efficiently, to say nothing of their longer term failure at a national and regional level to get to grips with food security, digitisation, secondary education, the new challenges presented by science and technology, or the services diversification that will enable economies to be competitive in future.
Reforming, even tearing up existing public sector structures so that governments meet twenty first century challenges may make for uncomfortable reading in societies where almost everyone knows someone who works in one or another way the public sector. However, without a thoughtful restructuring of Caribbean governance it is hard to see how the region will ever be ready for the world that is coming.
In this respect, what is happening in New Zealand may provide a far better model for the Anglophone Caribbean than the politically brutal ‘state capture’ that some UK politicians and their advisers seem to be pursuing.
Since the election of prime minister Jacinda Ardern in 2017, the government in Wellington has focused on making New Zealand public administration fit for purpose by promoting cross-departmental work and management reforms.
Earlier this year it passed a Public Service Act which aims to create a modern, better joined-up and citizen-focused public service. Recent changes have recognised that to be effective a more collaborative whole of government approach is required to deal with social, economic and technological challenges, requiring new organisational forms, open government and reconnecting the public service with the nation’s core values and practical needs.
Its focus is on personal accountability rather than over-formalised governance.
A prime minister’s delivery unit – a ‘stock take model’ – makes ministers and senior civil servants accountable in the Cabinet room to the prime minister for performance against clearly specified targets. The Act also allows for public servants to move easily between agencies, creates budgeted interdepartmental single-minister led boards to address high-priority issues collaboratively, and a public service leadership team to provide strategic direction across the public service, while guaranteeing officials political neutrality and merit-based appointments.
COVID-19 has demonstrated how Caribbean government ministries and agencies can combine and respond with agility and in new ways to solve complex challenges in a crisis. It has shown how governments can be repurposed and restructured and that the public sector is a key to accelerating delivery in ways that touch ordinary lives.
As New Zealand has recognized, to successfully navigate the world that is coming, a repurposed public sector and the adaptation of governance will not only accelerate implementation and make the delivery of services more efficient, but it will also convince citizens that their leaders care.