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Getting it right



The action of the government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in convening a Symposium to examine both its work programmes for 2009 and its methods of operation is a most commendable and timely one. It is in keeping with its broad goal of forging a modern, post-colonial society and with previous efforts at public sector reform. This is an ongoing piece of work, but a most formidable task given the nature of the public service that we have inherited from the colonial days.{{more}}

The colonial civil service was never intended to serve the interests of the majority of the population, “colonial subjects”, as we were deemed at the time. It was always intended to be an instrument of control, and civil servants were groomed with that objective in mind. Attitudes were shaped accordingly and the manner of service was commensurate to the perceived social and economic status of the recipient. The image given of the civil service was that of an elitist institution, and membership of it was considered a privilege and an indication of one’s social status.

Since independence, we have sought to tinker with those realities. Today, we no longer talk of the “civil service”, opting instead to use “public service”, as it should be. Yet we are still short of the attitudinal transformation which would facilitate those entering the public service to almost automatically see themselves as servants of the people. In addition, the combative and sometimes biased nature of our politics helps to reinforce a number of negative attitudes. Information, which in more developed and open societies would be deemed of a public nature, is often considered to be secretive and the public denied access to it.

The use of initiative, critical analysis and action are all inhibited by fear of reprisal. Passing the buck and a refusal to take personal responsibility become permanent features of our public institutions. Micro-management by the political directorate and the encouragement of gossip and news carrying do not help either. We become bogged down by both the structure of the colonial inheritance and the worst sides of our cultural practices.

To be fair, we have made impressive strides over the years, especially in relation to our levels of education and training. The public servant of today is, academically speaking, far more advanced than the pre-independence civil servant. Yet the root causes of our cultural stagnation remain largely intact. It is, therefore, to the credit of the government that it is attempting to grapple with these problems, in an open and frank manner. There is a limitation to what we as a people can achieve with the old structures intact.

“Getting the small things right” is no mere empty slogan. It is an urgent necessity and a prerequisite for effective public service. Attitudes must be reshaped and re-cultivated with not just efficiency but humility and willingness to serve, even the poorest of the poor, high on the agenda. We can no longer postpone such a venture.