Radical reform needed in public service
On Friday, May 17, 2019, David Burt, the Premier, announced that a strategic plan for government reform had been completed and implementation has commenced. Over the coming months, all senior officers and department heads will be engaged in various workshops in a process to introduce each ministry and department mission to the focus of the reform plan, or “the vision”.
A subsequent series of workshops will address the establishment of key performance indicators and/or performance measures.
Mr Burt recently remarked that there had been “sobering reflection” on a survey of the island’s public officers in comparison with other governments and he told the House of Assembly: “We were judged to be underperforming in just about every particular area.”
Mr Burt said that civil servants struggled against excessive bureaucracy as well as “difficulty in advancing decision-making effectively”.
This most certainly is a welcome reform initiative by this government and no doubt, a tall order of business to undertake. What is also very encouraging to see, is that this new public service reform plan, in part, is a result of an assessment of the already available 2013 Spending and Government Efficiency report, which clearly sets out structural organisation and accountability flaws within Government.
This Sage report includes a section entitled “Performance: The Critical Paradigm Shift”, which outlined a plan to strengthen leadership and address performance gaps, by way of a restructuring of the Civil Service’s hierarchy and Mr Burt has said that many of these recommendations are being, or have been implemented.
One of these earlier recommendations included the reconstitution of the function of the Public Service Commission, being the “umbrella” management of the Civil Service, for it to become a truly independent body with legitimate oversight for appointments and dismissals, performance appraisals, and succession planning of the Civil and Public Service.
There was also a Sage recommendation that there should be fixed-term contracts for the positions of Secretary to the Cabinet, Head of the Civil Service, Financial Secretary, and Permanent Secretary.
The term of these contracts should be for three years only, at which time, the PSC would determine if the renewal of these contracts is in the best interest of Bermuda. This will allow only high performers to remain in these critical leadership positions over the longer term. The move by this administration to employ the Sage report is to be commended and I am hopeful that many, if not all of these recommendations will come to fruition. I am also very encouraged to see that the Government has received union support for the initial proposed reform measures.
You may remember that in 2014, the OBA administration presented its proposal for public sector reform, largely based on the Sage report, which included outsourcing, mutualisation and privatisation of some public services. However, the BPSU were not receptive and claimed that the proposal was a “threat” to the current terms and conditions of employment of civil servants.
It should be noted that the Sage report revealed that some union contracts had been negotiated that granted benefits, such as sick leave and the provision of overtime pay, which were exorbitant and significantly higher than the norm in the private sector.
The scale of benefits under these collective bargaining agreements, were deemed to be financially unsustainable regarding both wage rate increases and benefits. Also, there was no strategic framework for contract negotiations with unions and there was/is no standard across the Public Service, for negotiating such contracts. The [then] approximately 1,200 employees represented by the Bermuda Industrial Union, were not required to have performance appraisals, as set out in their collective bargaining agreement.
It was recommended in the Sage report that government employees who are members of a union, should not be negotiating on behalf of Government with the union of which they are members.
A strategic planning consultant has been assisting this government in the development of this Civil Service reform plan, who were selected after completing the RFP process, and the resulting report outlines the way forward for building a comprehensive road map to achieving the long-awaited Public Service Reform.
The consultant also surveyed members of the public service in order to evaluate a common set of formal and informal traits that typically determine an organisation’s performance and provides context to some of the challenges government reform will face.
Sent to roughly 3,000 employees between June 6, 2018 and July 20, 2018, they achieved a 16 per cent response rate or 472 respondents across all departments. This “organisation DNA” report, noted a marked “trust deficit” within the entire CS and revealed the following viewpoints from responders:
• Many within the CS categorise the Government of Bermuda as an over-managed organisation
• Ritual promotions, which then ensured that mediocrity prevailed over merit
• Mistrust between the Public Service and the unions
• Mistrust between layers of management
• Mistrust around the level of commitment of political leadership to make a difference to the lives of the people of Bermuda
• The lack of a performance management culture within the Public Service, which has embedded a prevailing mindset that accountability for actions and performance is not a critical success factor
While the “DNA” survey response was low, I would venture to say that it is a crushing indictment of an organisation which is both dysfunctional and destined for continued failure if radical reform is not made.
Between the 2013 Sage report and this administration’s new reform plan, there is an abundance of information/recommendations at the Government’s disposal to make meaningful Civil Service reform a reality. Perhaps the Government can start with the implementation of fixed-term contracts for the most senior CS positions, which would then help foster a “lead-by-example” mentality throughout all government administration.
The road map is there and the destination is within reach. The question is, “will we ever get there”?
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