Fred Mitchell Continues Debate in the House

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Nassau, The Bahamas – Presenting his views on Crime, The collapsed state of the Public Service and the issue of Prison Service officers’ promotion, the Member of Parliament for Fox Hill took the FNM government to task as the debate on the Supplementary Appropriations Bill continued in the House of Assembly on Monday 10th, 2007.

Here is a full text of the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Fred Mitchell.

Intervention House of Assembly
Supplementary Appropriations Bills

3rd December 2007

I want to start where I left off the last time I spoke about how the budget process is done.

The phrases ‘the public interest’ in the Financial Administration and Audit Act and ‘as soon as practicable‘, are both interpretations and decisions that have to be made by the government of the day. We would have done all of this at the time of the budget. There are many more important projects to think about:

Crime is one of them and how bail for murderers continues to be an issue unaddressed, trials can’t happen because the Crown is not ready.

Taxi plates, radio and TV licenses and the free market, the sale of BTC and ZNS and Bahamasair, NHI, free tuition at UWI and COB, on a needs blind basis.

I repeat, how I approached my task as Minister in looking for money when the government asked for a service to be performed by the ministry, it was the public service and the PS who were responsible for finding it. Not me. If it were not available then I would go back to the government and ask for additional monies. It was for the Ministry of Finance to be sure that it was done right.

I gave the example earlier of how this budget is really a production of the bureaucrats of the Ministry of Finance. You can submit your actual estimated expenditure all you want but Finance would come back and say sorry you have to cut it by ten per cent and if you don’t cut it we will cut it for you. So unless North Abaco can stop that then the system will continue and I will predict that he can’t stop it.

I think that the amount of contingency funding authority ought to be raised to adjust for inflation.

I think that the Ministry of Finance has not been as progressive in its thinking as it should be and that respective Ministers of Finance have been too captive to officials of the Ministry on matters of procedure and often this interferes with the delivery of services to the public.

Old fashioned, moribund and not forward thinking, the public service generally.

Former Prime Minister Christie’s view at the start was that PSs should attend all Cabinet meetings behind their ministers, and be made to account publicly for the policies that they urged ministers to settle. When it is convenient today the PSs hide behind ministerial responsibility but want to take the kudos when something succeeds.

The hiring freeze was wrong. Caused problems in the service. Let me refer to the situation at Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). I address the words of Member for North Abaco in his address to the House. The member sought to distinguish between the emergency funding for the vector control officers following the malaria scare and that of hiring of nine persons at the MFA.

He said the following:

“Now that has to be distinguished from a Member like the Member for Fox Hill who comes along and says he needs this money to hire some people because the Ministry has deficiencies and then he gets the agreement of his colleagues and then he goes to work and hires some people from his constituency who do not add to the level of competence which people are led to believe the ministry needs.”

I raised this matter last week because I take the strongest objection to it.

I wish to set the record straight on this because the Member for North Abaco had to concede in the exchange that took place between us last week that there was in fact the authority to hire the nine persons, and Mr. Speaker that is all that is important here. No policy, law or regulation was violated. And with respect to whether or not there is a distinction between vector control officers and staff for the MFA, there is no difference at all. The rules say if you don’t have the money to provide for the requests of the government you go to cabinet and get it approved and then if it is contingency then you get the legislature to approve it.

All I would add is that the Member for North Abaco claims that MFA had the money in its budget because it did not go over its allocations for the year. Again, there is an explanation for that. First Ministers don’t find the money. PSs do. They are the chief accounting officers. If they say there is no money then there is none. Secondly, monies allocated you may have an intention to spend but you just don’t; get to it so you would not want to move the monies from one head to the next.

The difference is that North Abaco sits and says today he does not think that the MFA case was in the public interest. I was the Minister at the time and I say it was. I was in the seat at the time and so my view prevails not his.

Secondly, he is clearly mixing up two sets of circumstances. I had no need to object to anything that the Member for St. Anne’s said when he first raised this issue save for the fact that he by innuendo was giving the impression that I was violating some policy with regard to hiring people without security clearance. The fact is on the advice of the Public Service, you can hire people without security vetting subject to the vetting being completed successfully. This would be put in the appointment letters.

In fact, if this exercise was as innocent as the Member for Marco City claimed last week, there would be no need fro the Member for St. Anne’s to go through all the histories and the innuendo. He could have simply put the case and sat down. But we know what this is about.

We did not do this hiring subject to security for TACs and above because of the level of security clearance needed but for ancillary workers at the levels of messengers and janitresses, it was done. That was as far as I needed to clarify.

But now that the issue has been polluted by the Member for north Abaco, I say further that there were two sets of employees asked for and required by the Ministry. One was the lack of professional staff being solved by the permission of the Cabinet to hire I believe 7 TACs.

Then later there was a request for 9 ancillary workers in October 2006. My difficulty with the public service processes is, why should a decision be made on 17th November and three, four months later the decision is not carried out? Thus the need to force a deadline on them to get the job done. Some of the TACs we wanted to hire in the other group we lost them because we simply took too long waiting for security clearance. We met with the COP many times and the officers in charge of the vetting and the problem is the vetting simply took to long, sometimes a year or more. This is simply unacceptable in a modern government.

So it is not true what the Member for North Abaco asserts that I got the agreement of my colleagues and then went to work and hired some people from my constituency (I am not denying that the ancillary workers were from my constituency. I am proud of that and of them) who did not add to the level of competence which people are led to believe the Ministry needs. All the TACs that were hired were qualified fully and the general service workers were also qualified and there was the full authority in two separate Cabinet papers to complete the hiring.

I wish the record set straight on this.

Everything has to be trying to show some nasty, crookedness, even where it does not exist.

I want also to address the issue of the Operators on ATC at LPI. There is ahead for $510,000. The Minister of State said that this amount was not paid. I raised this matter during the Budget debate: I asked whether the government intended to honour our conclusions to pay the ATCs their allowance; to pay Mrs. Ruth Millar her pension entitlement, to pay the prison officers their pension entitlements, to settle the Road Traffic operator’s dispute by paying off some officers and rehiring others. The answer was a contemptuous no. It was dismissed out of hand. It was even represented by one Minister that no conclusion could be found. So I thought maybe I was dreaming but I am now relieved to see that the record reflects the decisions and I hope that this decision on the TACs and the other matters I have raised are in fact carried out.

As for why the matter waited until the end of the term that this was somehow tied to an election agenda. This too is a fiction. The record will show that in some cases we had been seeking to work with the public service bureaucracy for over five years to try to get it to move to make the decisions but the government was either deliberately or through inadvertence blocked at every turn, and it was only in the last year that we were finally able to overcome all the obstacles.

I had never been in a situation where, I was the head of a system but had no disciplinary authority. Where I could give an instruction and there was no effective means of enforcing it. Where files would go missing, instructions defied and there were no consequences, yet in public we talk about ministerial responsibility. I have said to my colleagues convention be damned, I take no responsibility for what is not my responsibility. Those who did it have to take the fall for it.

This quote from a British report on public sector reform:

“Imagine becoming chief executive of a large organization and being told that the entire management are ‘independent’, that you have no control over their major levers of motivation – recruitment, promotion and reward – and that they operate as a separate organization with a mind of its own. Modern organizations do not and cannot work like that. Neither can government.”

We inherited this system from the British who themselves are struggling through how to change it and have changed it significantly. The public service in its management levels is not politically neutral. That much is clear. It is very active in a passive way, passive aggressive. This Gordian knot must be cut and we must find true reform if our country is to be better served. The present system is simply unacceptable.

Other problems exemplify why the need for change:

Example of trying to get a cheque from the Finance Ministry how the average citizen, the average employee of the public service users because they can’t get their systems in place in time.

Example of pension cheques: too long.

For example, the prisons officers who are promoted are still not paid often police officers are promoted and get their money months afterwards.

Issue of the prison and qualifications.

The issue of the prison promotions raised by the Member for Mt. Moriah. Table the notices. They show that in each case they were signed by the prison superintendent at the time.

The Member for North Abaco talks about conspiracy. I would like to know who was part of the conspiracy. There was no conspiracy. The notices could not have come without authority. And the government is bound by the notices. It was done in the same way as the other notices, including the one that it superseded.

The history of the promotions:

Those who were appointed without proper training were put to work under Frank Watson. We had to straighten that out.

Those whose promotions were turned back by the PSC. We arranged the assessment course.

On representations from the Staff Association and the Acting Supt. At the time, several other names were advanced in the assessment course.

They were then all included in the lists for promotions.

The issue of promotions and qualifications a sore point. The fact that the Association signed off on the new and alternative qualifications but when the new administration came in they no longer agreed with what the previous group had agreed.

Tried to communicate on a quarterly basis with all heads of public sector unions and staff associations. They know the problems. But it appears that we were hated for trying to get it right.

In the case of the police staff association in one case, I overruled an attempt by the COP to discipline the Chairman of the Association on the advice of the PS at Public Service even though he was against us and continues to be against whatever we tried to do.

The insurance issue and how we put the insurance in place but the problems of wading through the public service procedures.

What is political interference? This expression is bandied about so much. But a distinction must be made between the legitimate exercise of a political discretion and that of inference. Some of these staff associations heads were complaining about political interference but were the beneficiaries and their members were of the legitimate exercise of political discretion. For example, left to the bureaucracy, no adjustments would have been made to prison officer salaries. Yet, when the adjustments were made the staff associations seemed to hate us for doing it.

Similarly in the RBDF.

The Compensation study and the public service raises scheduled for 2008. Does the present budget reflect that or will they not have to deal with that by way of contingency warrants.

It is part of this campaign by the FNM who themselves engage in the most shameless political exercises and then seek to clothe them in neutrality but will accuse the PLP of political interference. The example of Member for North Abaco and the police force – “remember the money“.

Clear exercise of political authority, why is that not political interference and what the government did under the PLP is political interference. The PM boasted how he made the decisions on the deployment of the Force. We never made nay such assertions. The COP was always seen as the person who ran the Force.

The Staff Associations were able to influence decision making. I spoke to two officers about the Staff Association’s position with regard to their promotions and I realized that we may have made a mistake by allowing the Association to prevent these officers from getting their double promotions when they were clearly qualified from a skills position to be so promoted. The COP wanted to do it. The Staff Association complained to me as Public Service Minister and I arranged for them to meet the COP and he changed his mind about the double promotions. So is that political interference or the legitimate exercise of a political discretion. I think it is the latter.

The example of my getting a cheque from the Treasury in 20 minutes, a rare moment and one which shocked me and I have not seen it since. That the Treasury does have discretionary funds that they an issue in US cash if necessary.

Raise the case of the 40 persons who were promoted and have had their promotions rescinded. This is a matter for the Dept of Public Service

The Public Service is not interested in transparency. And everyone talks the language of public sector reform but no one wants to agree to it.

For example we all know general orders, the public service regulations, and the statute law on pensions but there are hundreds of informal polices and conventions that govern how policies are exercised that I wanted to post publicly but which I was fought tooth and nail on. They need to be made public because what you see as public law is not what you get.

Trying to reform the policies where even today in this modern age, Ministers have to deal with cash when they are travelling, signing for money, getting thousands of dollars in cash, having to wait till the last minute for cheques from the bank, when no minister should have to deal with cash. For example my counterpart from South Africa never deals with any expense someone goes before, arranges all, and leave afterwards and settles the bills. Try as I might I could not get that implemented. It s for the protection of everyone that there ought to be an officer to deal with this. I don’t want anything to do with money or government cash. The reporting is arcane and difficult.

I suggested that there ought to be a government visa debit card as substitute that went exactly nowhere.

Repeat what I said earlier about how the budget is actually done.

But the real problem I do to understand is that often PSs themselves can’t agree on what the rules are. And notwithstanding the act that the Minister is in charge, you are almost in a constant fight with bureaucracy to carry out your instructions

I had to tell one, because I am a minister that does not mean that I am smarter or better than you, it simply means I am the minister and that I have a level of authority and you have a level of authority. What I say goes and you are bound to follow lawful instructions or go.

Coming in from the private sector, you are stripped of your aides and enter a hostile world.

Opposition tried to make fun of this and political capital but I am more convinced than ever that the way to go is reform in this area. You go when I go.

Now Ingraham tried to get around this by intimidation and shortcutting the rules but I simply want the public service to comply with the legitimate instructions of the political authority.

Public sector reform may mean moving the top echelon when you go. This was part of the British civil service reform effort. We implemented the personal assistant for each Minister and if that has not been rescinded each minister has the right to hire one to facilitate his or her work. But the hostility of the service to those individuals and the complete lack of any attempt to understand what they are about and expected to be doing.

Our system does not well serve by what we know have. I believe that our system does not facilitate business. Say what the Summit of the Americans process tried to do to commit us to facilitate going into business within 30 days, compare and contrast US 7 days, Canada 3 days, Bahamas 6 months. The Bahamas public service simply does not deliver the goods and services on time as it should to public.

It also does not serve the employees well because policies are not transparent, and I spent much of my time as minister as a personnel officer and fighting to bring greater transparency and I am sure that it did not help. Often employees were victimized because they complained to ministers.

Simply too slow and we have to find a better quicker way.

Try finding Cabinet conclusion. Can you believe that in this day and age we are still filing things by hand and tons of paper, instead of digitizing the conclusions and papers and indexing so they can be pulled up at a moments notice? This was another reform opposed by the Ministry of Finance.

Make a distinction between the Minster of Finance and the bureaucracy.

Bill no. 12 DPS 1.19 million,

Ministry of Foreign Affairs duplication form Bill no. 9

Dept. of Civil Aviation, the operator scarcity allowance of $510,000 and the need to pay it, because it was not paid, and the need to settle Ruth Millar’s pension, the Road Traffic officer’s rehiring and settle their dispute, and the need to pay the prison officers pensions.

Cabinet conclusions and what they mean in law.

Work with the prison, the police in the public service on quarterly basis to improve their conditions but the more we worked with them, the more they seemed to hate us for it.

Never had as much access. So we determined that they simply opposed us politically so there was nothing we could do to please them.