The civil service of Barbados accounts for more than 25% of the country’s GDP. One dollar paid as salary to a civil servant is assumed to be one dollar worth of national output. Indifference, poor work habits, and political interference through the years have conspired to make this assumption spurious.
This article attempts to help readers understand the nature and depth of the civil service problem in Barbados by revisiting some historical signposts.
1954: The system of ministerial government was introduced in Barbados. The BLP held 16 out of 24 seats at the time so Grantley Adams became the first premier of the island and local control of the civil service began in earnest.
1974: Apparently angry and frustrated over attitudes aimed at blocking the implementation of his governmental policies, Errol Barrow as Prime Minister (PM) of Barbados, denounced the civil service as an ‘army of occupation’. He also amended the constitution to base the appointment of all judges on the recommendation of the PM after consultation with the Leader of the Opposition.
1976: Tom Adams became PM and political interference within the civil service reached unprecedented levels.
1977: As a result of excessive elections spending the year before, mixed with rising imports, declining exports and sub-par performance in the tourism industry, the Barbadian economy sputtered and forced Tom Adams to utilize the Compensatory Financing Facility provided by the IMF.
1982: Excessive election spending the year before, high salary increases to civil servants, coupled with financial recklessness and fiscal indiscipline forced Tom Adams to enter Barbados into its first standby arrangement with the IMF. Continued financial indiscipline after the end of the IMF agreement forced the economic recovery process to take longer than expected.
The Barbadian electorate chose a new administration when the first opportunity presented itself a few years later.
1986: Errol Barrow returned for his last year as PM. He attempted to counter the high level of political interference in the Civil Service under Tom Adams by establishing a Ministry of the Civil Service with Senator Harcourt V. Lewis being the minister responsible for its operations. Henry Forde, the leader of a 3-man opposition team at the time, pleaded desperately with BLP members of the civil service to play whatever role they could to advance the interests of the party. Presumably, obstructing and frustrating the implementation of government policies and programs was to become the strategy of choice.
1987: Erskine Sandiford became PM of Barbados after the sudden death of Errol Barrow.
PM Sandiford had the benefit of Tom Adams’ experience with the IMF from 1976-1986 to impress upon his mind that the Barbadian economy was open, vulnerable, small and weak and therefore required careful and skillful handling. From a political perspective, Sandiford also had to be aware that no DLP leader had ever wrecked the economy to the point where they had to seek assistance from the IMF.
1992: Irresponsible and reckless election spending in 1991 combined with generally poor economic and financial management on the part of the Sandiford administration, caused the Barbadian economy to crash land on the doorsteps of the IMF.
It should be noted that before the 1991 economic crisis, senior civil servants had claimed that their salaries were way below the market level and so a salary regrading exercise was implemented. This effectively raised their salaries and minimized the impact of the 8% salary cut which was imposed soon after.
Whereas senior civil servants were able to ‘feather their own nests’ by completing the salary regrading exercise, they were unable to quickly implement and execute structural measures agreed to under the IMF program. As a result of their slowness and lethargy, the Sandiford administration was unable to draw down the full amount of resources made available to it under the IMF standby arrangement.
Middle and lower level civil servants, private businesses and their employees took the brunt of the assault from the economic fallout. Approximately, 3000 unfortunate souls lost their jobs.
Politicians and senior civil servants, the architects of the economic collapse, remained immunized and protected from its negative after shocks.
Similar to the situation of 1982-84, the Barbadian electorate chose a new administration when the first opportunity presented itself a few years later.
1994 general election: Issues related to the civil service reached the level of national politics.
Owen Arthur of the BLP promised to amend the constitution so as to protect the salaries and allowances of civil servants from being reduced.
Dr. Richie Haynes of the NDP promised:
1. Greater wage security for public workers
2. A reversal of the 1974 amendments which had a harmful effect on the public service
3. Restoration of full responsibility for appointments, promotions, transfers & discipline within the civil service to the Public Services Commission.
4. Appointment of a Contractor-General who would be granted statutory responsibilities related to the award of Government contracts.
1995: As an economist, Arthur would have observed the vital role that the 8% civil servants’ salary cut had played in getting the Barbadian economy out of its deepest state of disequilibrium to date. So politically, he quickly removed that option from the toolkit of future prime ministers by amending the constitution in 1995 to prevent any future across-the-board cut in civil servants’ salaries.
Additionally, Arthur assured the country that he would be taking immediate steps to improve civil governance and strengthen democratic institutions. To achieve this objective, the Barbados Constitution Review Commission, chaired by Henry Forde QC was set up in 1996.
Finally, Arthur mandated the Ministry of the Civil Service to produce a ‘white paper on public sector reform’ and to warn civil servants, on behalf of the ghost of Errol Barrow, that they will have to change their behavior and adopt positive approaches in order to achieve results in keeping with the policy intentions of the government.
As far as Arthur saw it, his propaganda of Barbados being admitted to the clique of developed nations would never be taken seriously whilst the country was being burdened by the dead weight of an inefficient civil service.
A lot of money was spent, speeches and promises were made, external consultants were utilized, views from the public were solicited, and documents were produced. But predictably, the senior civil servants failed to convert
Owen’s vision of a progressive and efficient civil service into anything tangible and meaningful, and by the time David Thompson became PM in 2008, not even the slightest ripple of positive change in civil service attitudes and productivity could be discerned. The Public sector reform exercise had simply turned out to be a colossal waste of time.
Owen Arthur started his innings as a PM on an economic wicket that had been rendered ‘user-friendly’ by a standby arrangement with the IMF, and an exhibition of fiscal discipline by the Sandiford administration after the IMF agreement had ended.
Financially, Arthur borrowed heavily, feasted on the NIS funds unconscionably, initiated the Al Barack problem, and ultimately rocketed the country’s Debt-to-GDP ratio into the rating agencies’ downgrade alert zone. Downgrades and rumors of downgrades have become the norm since then.
By the time he left office, Arthur had laid the perfect economic and financial trap for the PM who replaced him. No wiggle room was left available. The Thompson administration either had to apply financial skill and fiscal prudence, or the Barbadian economy would head down a slippery slope in a hurry.
2008-2010: Thompson had emerged as PM clinging tenaciously to the belief that he and his political teammates should enjoy the bounty flowing from political power, whilst the task of producing and executing national strategies would rest upon the backs of senior civil servants, local and foreign advisors and consultants, and hired technocrats like Darcy Boyce, Maxine McClean, and Dr. Justin Robinson.
Incredibly enough, Thompson had warned Barbadians that the economy would be viewed and managed as a ‘fatted calf’ waiting to be feasted upon only by specially chosen guests. Any guest, however welcome, was instructed to wait for his call.
As expected, the irresponsible raiding of NIS funds and the reckless build up of the national debt which had accelerated under Owen Arthur, went on unabated under Thompson.
Not surprisingly, a slight temporary lifting of the national veil of secrecy potently revealed familiar patterns with respect to the development of the CLICO problem. Furthermore, court-ordered payments to Al Barack remained untouched.
The introduction of free bus rides for school children and the establishment of constituency councils were meant to achieve political objectives, but they came at a heavy financial cost and only served to contribute to government’s worsening fiscal condition.
Mimicking the financial recklessness displayed by Tom Adams during the first half of the 1980’s, and by Erskine Sandiford in the early 1990’s, Thompson effectively inflicted severe damage on the economy and then tried to hoodwink Barbadians into believing that he and Sandiford were only responding to the bad financial hands that they had been dealt.
By the time of his death in 2010, Thompson had paid little or no attention to Public Sector reform. It should be noted, however, that whilst public workers in central government generally continued in their jobs with unproductive and discourteous habits, some of their colleagues in statutory corporations and state enterprises were identified and dismissed – unfairly in some cases.
2010 – Present: Against this background, the Freundel Stuart administration assumed responsibility for the Barbadian economy, and its built-in traps, in late 2010.
Probably unwittingly, Thompson added a subtle psychological trap to further handicap his successor.
The narrative fed to unsuspecting Barbadians from 2008 -2010 was that government was spending excessive money to stimulate the economy and protect jobs during a period of a global downturn. Thompson assured Barbadians that this strategy, coupled with massive capital inflows for earmarked projects, will enable the country to record fiscal surpluses of at least 5.9% starting in 2011.
Those surpluses, much to the chagrin of the present PM and his Minister of Finance, have never materialized. On the contrary, the fiscal deficit has soared to such giddying heights, that Professor Michael Howard recently advised the government of Barbados to start considering an IMF agreement. IMF agreement? One year after excessive spending on an election? Sounds familiar?
Although warning Barbadians that the government’s nipples have become euphemistically sore, the Freundel Stuart administration reassured civil servants that every effort will be made to preserve their jobs – even if, as a practical matter, money had to be borrowed to pay their salaries.
Juxtaposed against this promise of job security is another example which reinforces the notion that, when it comes to problem solving, the civil service “isn’t worth what Paddy shot at”:
A rather mundane and innocuous issue related to differing viewpoints among the principal and teachers of the Alexandra School snaked its way upwards past the governing body of the school, senior civil servants, and the political directorate. The simple solution, merely transferring the principal and a few teachers to other schools, had to be outsourced and purchased from the Hal Gollop Commission for a considerable fee.
Barrow’s 1974 constitutional amendment was utilized by the David Thompson & Freundel Stuart administrations to appoint the current Chief Justice, Sir Marston Gibson. The political opposition tried to fool Barbadians into thinking that by making this appointment, the government had committed a most heinous act. Realistically speaking, however, the government had merely exhibited sloppiness and incompetence by having to change the qualification standards of the law after it had chosen and publicly announced its candidate, but constitutionally, it had the right to recommend its candidate to the GG for appointment.
So far, calls for civil service reform within the Freundel Stuart administration have been limited to a proposal advanced by Sir Frank Alleyne who suggested that the hiring of Permanent Secretaries should be done on a contractual basis. In a nutshell, this simply means that Permanent Secretaries will become political appointees and would come in and go out with the administrations that appointed them.
However, implementing Sir Frank’s recommendation would do nothing to increase efficiency, productivity, and problem solving within the civil service.
As of today, problems with their roots going as far back as the Owen Arthur and David Thompson administrations have mushroomed into crisis proportions. Al Barack has not been paid. The CLICO problem has grown into an international scandal. The massive inflow of capital funds to start capital projects, promised by Thompson, has turned out to be useless propaganda. Downgrades by crediting agencies continue and no economic growth appears on the short-term horizon.
To put it mildly, at the end of 2013, the social, financial, and economic prospects for Barbados look bleak and dreary.
Lax regulations, corruption, arrogance, low productivity, incestuous relationships among political parties and a few businesses including the media and trade unions, and a desperate urge on the part of everyone to get rich quickly will all amalgamate to make a 2014 IMF agreement likely.
One way or the other, civil servants don’t give a damn.