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Better planning required

Talk about calling it like you see it. There is this paragraph very early on in the Report of the SAGE Commission that is very hard to get over. It reads: “The Commission has identified that the Civil and Public Service does not have sufficient leadership skills and capabilities at the right management levels, nor are the necessary skills and capabilities present in an appropriate number of individuals, to meet the challenges that Bermuda is facing today.” Ouch.

Followed a little later by this line: “Leaders have allowed a lack of accountability at the top to set a poor tone for Government employees”. Ouch again.

These are observations that can only prompt the reader to pause and to wonder: never mind the pros and cons of what these guys are recommending, is it even possible to make our government more efficient?

It's a fair question under any circumstances. Here's why: We are a democracy and democratic governments are not necessarily efficient. You might even argue that they were never designed to be. People on the Hill are not there because they possess any special talent or aptitude for the business of government. They are chiefly skilled at getting elected and staying elected. That is how they got there. US President Harry Truman, who believed government should be run like a good business, also cautioned that whenever you have an efficient government you have a dictatorship.

The people can, and will have their say, as the OBA Government found out last week, much to their chagrin I am sure, when they got a quick lesson of democracy in action over plans to close the Lamb-Foggo Centre: a petition of some 5,000 signatures and a march on the Hill and all in quick time.

It was their first Waterloo and they retreated. That may well have been for good reason. It has always been better practice to let people know what's planned ahead of time and why (some call it consultation) and what the alternatives might be. It's a wonder this wasn't addressed, not so much by BHB, one presumes they were focused on finances, but by Cabinet when the proposal came to them for review. If only for political reasons they should have at least seen what was coming. The OBA holds three seats in the East, all of them by pretty narrow margins and this may yet turn out to be a decision for which they will carry the can.

More lessons learned, I expect? Almost certainly a better, more careful plan will be required when it comes to the SAGE Commission report and recommendations. Government finally spoke on the report this week, promising widespread consultation, but even that promise didn't come until after the report had been out there for days and had long since become the subject of public comment; and after the Opposition PLP announced they would be taking it to the public. But surely the report holds few surprises for the OBA. They ran for Government knowing what was required. They commissioned the work and they have had the report for four weeks now.

Whatever else people are looking for from their Government, they are looking for direction. I happen to also agree with those who advocate that direction and leadership must first come from those at the top. Here the SAGE Commissioners have laid out a pretty good road map for them on how to show the way. I list only some of the more obvious:

* Shrink that Cabinet and better streamline the portfolios;

* Make reductions in salaries for themselves a reality;

* Move to reduce the number of MPs (funny they didn't mention the Senate);

* Beef up the checks and balances we currently have to make accountability a public reality; and here I particularly liked their suggestion of establishing joint select committees of legislators to monitor the work of Ministries;

* Help get that Public Accounts Committee up and running and improve its effectiveness in scrutinising public spending;

* Implement and make available for all to see the 2012 Public Service Code of Conduct and the 2012 revised Ministerial Code of Conduct (remember Jetgate kerfuffle?);

* And, as I said last week, get on with that reorganisation of the civil service, especially with those recommendations that wouldn't appear to cost a dime but which might ultimately save us thousands.

We desperately need a new attitude, a new approach and a new culture when it comes to government. On this, last word here to the SAGE Commission: “ … responsibility for this culture of a lack of adherence to stringent fiscal controls must be shared by both Government employees and Government Ministers. In the past, Ministers have exerted influence in encouraging — or at least not discouraging — an environment where it was deemed acceptable to ignore independent oversight functions.”

Almost a year on, it is past time for evidence of change.

Small tribute

Permit me please, a personal postscript this week. I want to pay public tribute to former Editor of The Royal Gazette David Leslie White. He was editor to me when I started out in journalism as a young man, many years ago. He gave me both the opportunity and the freedom to develop and hone my writing skills. It wasn't all sweet encouragement. He was a hard task master too. David believed in getting the story and in getting it right and in how the news should be reported, that is without fear or favour. It was no way to make friends, but the right way to keep people informed. Personally, I will be forever grateful for what he taught me about reporting and about writing, and ultimately about life in Bermuda. They were good lessons. As an occasional columnist today, any faults and failings are mine. R.I.P. David.

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Published November 29, 2013 at 8:00 am (Updated November 28, 2013 at 4:52 pm)

Better planning required

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