It is important, in my view, to identify and understand the problem clearly at the outset and thereafter, attempt to proffer a practical solution to resolve it.
Harmony and Conflict.
On the face of it, the theme harmony and conflict smacks of misplaced dialectics in the context of the subsisting public servant - minister relationship, with little hope of course, of an acceptable synthesis. Time was when the relationship was a dynamic, healthy, productive and mutually reinforcing one.
However, in the current context where one party is totally subservient to the other, one cannot think in terms of a relationship fraught with tensions arising from a perpetually swinging state of healthy harmony and productive conflict! At best therefore, one could describe the present day politician/public servant interface as one of quiet and unquestioning acquiescence on the part of the public servant, in which compliant attitude there would hardly be any room for conflict or discord with the minister.
The relationship has even been rather melodramatically described as one between the male principle (the minister) and the female principle (the public servant)! The relationship could therefore be described as a truly unipolar one where the public servantrole is totally subsumed by the overweening authority of the minister. If by chance tensions and dissonance develop in the relationship, one party will have to give way and exit. In such an eventuality, one could safely guess which party would be shown the door!
Objective of the partnership.
At this stage, one might pointedly ask what the partnership of the politician and the public servant seeks to achieve. Ideally, the partnership should be a combined, earnest endeavour to serve the public with honesty, efficiency and dedication. Are we achieving this objective? Clearly not! Why not, is the question.
Politicization, Indiscipline and Corruption.
It is also a fact that people rush to father all the ills in the public service on politicians and politicization. Although politicization has undoubtedly been the bane of the public service, there are certain other factors as well that have contributed to the sad deterioration in the standards and efficiency levels of the public service. Even at the level of Secretaries and Heads of Departments, many officers are not adequately equipped in the knowledge, communication skills and competence required, to handle the problems and effectively deal with the innumerable challenges they have to constantly face.
Indiscipline and corruption at both the political and the bureaucratic levels are the other major contributing factors to the current impasse. These may again be the off-shoots of the blanket politicization of the public service that has now become the established order of things. Indiscipline, which is rife in the public service, reflects the rank indiscipline which stems from weak law enforcement leading to disorder in the larger society. These are crippling weaknesses in the entire system of public administration which enervate the resolve and the capacity of the public service to function efficiently.
Psychological adjustment and accommodation.
In every person there is a basic need to gain control of his physical and psychological life space. The politician has an assigned role to perform as much as the public servant has his. Where a balance can be struck and a happy equilibrium maintained, which would mutually acknowledge and reinforce each others’ roles, one could expect things to function without disharmony and discord, keeping to admirable efficiency levels, in the primary task of serving the general public.
However, in the present circumstances, with the public servant totally devoid of any institutional protection and being at the complete mercy of the politician, there is hardly any redemption for him. With so many intrusions into and even unwarranted invasions of, what I have referred to earlier as a person’s physical and psychological life-space, the public servant is forced to voluntarily assume the role of a passive collaborator of the minister in doing things the latter’s way.
The Secretary, who may be knowledgeable in a required area, may often deliberately refrain from giving the minister the sound and impartial advice he is expected to tender, as he may feel that such advice however good, will still not find favour with the minister. Additionally, he may run the grave risk of losing the position he holds in the Ministry. So, it is indeed a tragic irony that the Secretary placed in such a predicament, may opt to act ‘inefficiently’, rather than incur the wrath of his minister. He will, on the other hand, seek ways and means of ingratiating himself with the minister, which he might well do to satisfy his conscience, by discovering new virtues in the minister’s policy initiatives and on-going actions, despite these being totally at variance with his own considered views. These are some of the more obvious in-built inefficiencies, that could be perceived in such a totally one-sided relationship.
Therefore, one could see the almost complete absence of any dynamic interaction in the relationship. On the other hand, it would not be wrong to call it a flat and featureless relationship. One could even say that in the given circumstances, the interaction would ironically be one of perfect harmony, totally devoid of any conflict or discord.
The solution would lie, in my view, in the establishment of a productive arrangement that would ensure the minister and the public servant working purposefully towards the common objective of serving the general public, honestly and selflessly. The only way to make such an arrangement operate in an unimpeded manner is to have in place instutionalised legal safeguards to protect the public servant in the discharge of his public duties, untramelled by political interference. These legal safeguards are already incorporated in the supreme legal instrument of the land – the Constitution, in the form of the 17th Amendment.
How long can one ignore, one may ask, the directional principles of governance laid down in the Constitution, particularly where such a course of action is resulting in a steep decline in law and order affecting crucially, the lives of ordinary citizens.
The implementation of the 17th Amendment will, it should be underscored, go a long way to ensure the independence of the institutions covered by the said Amendment which would in turn lead to an immediate improvement in the law and order situation in the country. Law and order indeed, would constitute the key to political and social stability and good governance in the island.
It would further be necessary in this regard, to enact a Public Service Act envisaging the development of an integrated vision encompassing the entire public service, based on the principles of accountability, transparency, efficiency, public spiritedness, impartiality and professionalism.
(The above views were expressed by the writer who retired as Additional Secretary to the President and later served as Ambassador in France at a seminar on the theme "The Public Servant and the Politician - Harmony and Conflict", held at the Post Graduate Institute of Management on November 3, 2009.)