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Public Service Commission: unelected and unaccountable

Dear Sir,

I have written before about the senior management of our Civil Service, which is a key factor in its level of accountability and efficiency. I identified what I believe to be the fatal flaw in its structure and here is a brief recap:

We know that all civil servants/officers support the government in power, but they are employees of the Crown and not Parliament. The body of Bermuda’s Public Service sits under the oversight umbrella of the Public Service Commission, consisting of five members, being an independent body, politically impartial and appointed by and responsible directly to the Governor.

On your bike: Lieutenant-Colonel David Burch, the Minister of Public Works, has railed against government hiring inefficiencies (File photograph by Blaire Simmons)

The PSC functions as the highest management body overseeing the CS, and its responsibilities are: advertising vacancies, assessments and selection, appointments and promotions, probation reports, annual performance appraisals, discipline appeals, trainees. Does the Governor review the performance of the members of the PSC? Does the Governor give annual performance appraisals to each member? Nowhere in the bowels of our constitutional records can I find evidence that this is part of the Governor’s remit, and therein lies the fatal flaw.

Let’s take this very basic example of performance and lack of accountability: when an officer in the Public Service is employed in an “acting” role, the reason is that the job description for that post has not been reviewed and renewed. This was the case that was recently brought to our attention by Lieutenant-Colonel David Burch, the Minister of Public Works, who said: “Hiring in government is a mess and requires a real intervention to try and sort out the challenges”. As an example, Colonel Burch said the Department of Public Lands and Buildings has had an acting buildings manager in place for three years and that there were other posts with a similar “acting” status. So who is responsible for updating Civil Service employee job descriptions and why does this take three years in some cases?

The Government of Bermuda “Conditions of Employment/Code of Conduct” — section 4.0.3 — states: “Permanent secretaries and heads of departments are responsible for determining whether a particular post fulfils operational objectives or whether it is more appropriate to consolidate the reporting levels of the post or modify the job description to embrace alternative job functions.” With that being the case, it sounds like someone in Colonel Burch’s ministry needs a performance review without further delay and the Head of the Civil Service may wish to give the PSC a call.

While accountability must start at the highest levels, the management structure we now have is not working effectively and has not for many years. So why can’t we, the people, hold the same measure of accountability for the most senior members managing our Civil Service, by way of an election process, just as we do for our Members of Parliament? At present we can’t because the system as set out in the ancient document of the Bermuda Constitution Order of 1968 does not structure it that way, as I have explained in my first paragraph. Can we change our constitution to achieve this without going independent? Yes, there is evidence that we can, as the following example suggests.

On November 30, 2020, British Overseas Territory Cayman Islands officially amended its constitution, after the British Government’s approval of the project. This approval completed a nearly yearlong process of revising the Cayman-British constitutional relationship to give the territory greater autonomy. These amendments were debated and unanimously approved in the Legislative Assembly. What did Cayman gain? The agreed amendments include making it mandatory for Britain to notify and consult with the Caymanian Government about legislation that would directly affect the territory, as well as removing the Caymanian governor's power to write standing orders for the territory’s parliament and making it explicit that the territory’s cabinet has autonomy over domestic affairs. In addition, a provision was added to create a police service commission that will handle Royal Cayman Islands Police Service administrative tasks, such as making appointments and removals, and exercising disciplinary powers over officers. Other relatively minor changes include officially changing the name of the legislature from “Legislative Assembly” to “Parliament”. The Governor still retains constitutional authority to enact legislation on behalf of the territory.

Is there the political will here in Bermuda to explore a similar move for more autonomy? I think not. Why? Because, for some, leaving the Constitution as it is written is a convenient and rather lazy argument for blaming our existing constitutional relationship with Britain — ie, the Westminster system — for so many of our often self-imposed woes. Thus, this perceived lack of administrative control can be used to further bolster the independence argument.

It has been abundantly clear since 2013 when the Bermuda Government Spending And Government Efficiency report was released that the management of the Civil Service is in dire need of an overhaul. We know that excessive bureaucracy and the resulting low efficiency in management of public funds indirectly causes taxation increases. Senior management accountability has been and continues to be lacking throughout the Civil Service, which means the performance of either the Head of the Civil Service and/or the PSC needs improvement. Here is an incentive for just that: make these six positions elected posts. They would be voted in (or out) by the electorate, at the time of an election and would have their “performance appraisal” delivered directly by the people. Given the intended neutral nature of these positions, the party-allegiance factor would be greatly reduced and votes would be cast on the individual’s performance level only.

I believe that a review of the Constitution with respect to the function and oversight of the Civil Service is sorely needed because it is obvious that there are ongoing, serious failures of accountability as it is managed at present. This is why I suggest a bipartisan consultation with Britain to review our existing constitution as regards the management structure of the Civil Service, with the goal of making amendments to give more power to the people to hold the PSC members and the Head of the Civil Service accountable.

Who do you think should rate the performance of the Civil Service? Six unelected, appointed and untouchable managers? Or the 46,311 registered voters whose money they manage?

“Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status”— Laurence J. Peter



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Published July 25, 2022 at 7:58 am (Updated July 25, 2022 at 2:31 pm)

Public Service Commission: unelected and unaccountable

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