Column: Understanding Public Services Delivery

November 18, 2015

[Opinion column written by Senator Lynne Woolridge]

Some of the comments I’ve heard people make about the problems we’re having with garbage and garbage trucks, indicate to me that many Bermudians misunderstand the relationship of politicians and public servants in the delivery of public services.

To judge by what people say, Public Works Minister Craig Cannonier himself was not only responsible for the failure of Waste Management to pick up garbage on time, but also for buying the faulty trucks, fixing the mechanical faults, getting the crews to shape up and fixing any union/ employee problems that might be occurring. Not only that, but if it doesn’t happen by Friday, he should be fired!

What people don’t seem to understand is that politicians cannot direct public servants in their daily activities.

Politicians make policy decisions – to spend public money buying more trucks, for example. But politicians have no power over choosing the trucks, paying for them, assigning people to run them, setting up a maintenance schedule and so on.

Those are things that the staff of the Ministry have responsibility for, responsibility that they guard jealously. I wasn’t aware of this delineation of responsibility until my appointment as a Senator.

I can’t just single Works and Engineering out, because it is the same for all Ministers. Ministers make decisions in Cabinet, based in part on advice given them by the technical officers concerned, and pass Cabinet decisions on to the staff of their Ministries and Departments, who have the responsibility for implementing them.

The public service is an organisation with its own boss – the Secretary to the Cabinet. It is an organisation responsible for choosing and hiring, promoting and disciplining its own members, working to an oversight body called the Public Service Commission. The Commission is made up of citizens appointed by the Governor. Ministers cannot interfere with their processes.

These complex relationships are designed, in the Westminster system, to act as checks and balances against the misuse of power by one side or the other. An independent public service has the job of ensuring that its work isn’t politicised or misused by the governing party. Parliament has the job of ensuring that public servants keep within their budgets and spend money for the purpose for which Parliament has authorised its use.

Always, it is the public that is intended to be protected by these roles and relationships.

In theory, the political wing of the Government – the politicians – should work harmoniously with the administrative wing – the public service – to accomplish things for the good of the country.

In practice, as is the case everywhere in the world where such relationships are in place, the two sides can be suspicious of and hostile towards each other.

Ministers may suspect that public servants are loyal to another political party, or disagree with practices developed while another political party was in power. If public servants have objections to proposed new policies, Ministers may think their objections are more political than technical.

On the other hand, public servants may think Ministers trying to put new policies in place are motivated by short-term political interests or are naive about the way the government works.

It is surely true that public servants need to understand and accept new political priorities and show loyalty to the government of the day. But politicians also have to understand that the good of the country sometimes depends on public servants feeling free to offer honest and courageous advice. Sometimes, Ministers need to be told what they may not want to hear!

I make these points in the hope that people will begin to realise that Government failures, whether they be potholes in the road that haven’t been fixed, unnecessarily complicated forms that have to be filled in, long delays in getting decisions and so on, don’t necessarily mean that the Ministers themselves have failed.

There are Cabinet Ministers and Junior Ministers. Between them and the delivery of the Government’s product to the public are thousands of public servants. Before you pass judgement, ask yourself whether the person you are criticising has actual responsibility for the delivery of the product you’ve found fault with.

- Lynne Woolridge

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Comments (17)

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  1. Somerset says:

    Politicians are happy to promote this separation between themselves and the Civil Service when there are problems in service delivery, but are anxious to take the credit when things go well!

  2. rhonda says:

    Lol. The buck no longer stops with the Minister…. Oops that only applies to the plp…. Oba are jokers

  3. Chris Famous says:

    “But politicians have no power over choosing the trucks”

    Last week the Minister was blaming the PLP for which trucks were choosen.

    • feel the love says:

      Perhaps you missed this sentence, “Politicians make policy decisions – to spend public money buying more trucks, for example.” Your spin on the truth doesn’t fly here.

      Care to comment on the AG’s report Chris? Why not do some of your “investigative” reporting on that? Exactly, I thought not.

  4. Chris Famous says:

    “Ministers may suspect that public servants are loyal to another political party, or disagree with practices developed while another political party was in power. If public servants have objections to proposed new policies, Ministers may think their objections are more political than technical.”

    Parnoid much?

    • feel the love says:

      You really like to cherry pick Chris. Perhaps you missed this portion of the article too, “It is surely true that public servants need to understand and accept new political priorities and show loyalty to the government of the day. But politicians also have to understand that the good of the country sometimes depends on public servants feeling free to offer honest and courageous advice. Sometimes, Ministers need to be told what they may not want to hear!” No bias on the author’s point. Sadly can’t say the same about your comment.

      About the AG’s report? All I hear is tree frogs. Might be the first time your mouth is shut!

      • Toleratate says:

        lol, he did it twice and still no answer on the AG’s Report.
        SMH

  5. eyes wide open says:

    Seriously Senator Woolridge! You must think that the electorate is stupid. We all know that the OBA are cutting services for the people of Bermuda to fund their America’s Cup. Go crawl back under the rock that you live under. You and your party could care less about Bermudians.

  6. Not exactly says:

    Interesting. Now politicians can be fired from their seat by the electorate or from Cabinet by the Premier, how exactly are civil servants held accountable? I’ve never heard of one being fired for doing a bad job.

  7. Truth says:

    IRONICALLY …. it was Min. Cannonier (then PREMIER) …. who appointed the CURRENT Secretary to the Cabinet…

  8. jt says:

    “What people don’t seem to understand is that politicians cannot direct public servants in their daily activities.”

    I think “should not” is likely more appropriate wording. To suggest it can’t happen is naive, as we know.

    • Silence Do Good says:

      I think it should be said at some point who really runs the civil service, the unions. Especially one union verses others, I leave it up to you to decide which union members thinks their employer is the union not the people of Bermuda, not their employer/managers, not the laws that they are governed by, not their CBA or their JD’s.

      Who does the unions support politically? Which unions formed a group called the People Campaign to actively speak out against government policies? If the policies aren’t delivered or serviced by civil servants how do the politicians do the people’s work.

      Bermuda is way to small with a bunch of self serving hypocrites all through the different systems for anything to work properly or as it should. Bermuda is run by minorities in public opinion and sheepeople who don’t care that their unions have different political motives that will cost them their jobs.

  9. UmJustSaying says:

    ‘Those are things that the staff of the Ministry have Responsibility for.’

    Who made the decision to buy from company X? When company USA is next door with
    all the bell and whistles that are capable of doing the same job cleaning up Manhattan, which is an island just like us. Inquiring minds would like to know.
    At this point those WORDS ending with $$$$$…bility have a different meaning within our Government.

    • Triangle Drifter says:

      Always wondered why we don’t buy Japanese or Korean trash truck. RHD & made for tight quarters in their cities.

  10. Clear Understanding says:

    This column gives a clear and precise account of how the process works with policies and services between the Politicians and the Civil Service. This is good because it will educate those who were not really sure how things take affect. I am now more enlightened to how the inner workings should go. We do not live in a perfect world so things may not always flow as they should. But I respect the author for putting this out there so that individuals can get a better understanding of what really happens behind the scenes. I believe that some of the people commenting should stop being so biased and realize that this column is truthful and stop trying to politicize things and see the facts! Great job in educating us Senator Woolridge!

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