On Wednesday, November 8, 2017 the Nation published a column captioned, “Not a pretty picture” by Dr. Frances Chandler. I generally agreed with much of what she had written. For the most part, she criticised many of the shortcomings of the National Insurance Scheme (NIS), justifiably so in my opinion.
I was actually enjoying her contribution until three-quarters was through when she struck a discordant note that reflected popular belief, but did not accord with reality. She stated:
Another problem is that NIS staff are civil servants governed by Civil Service rules and even the positions are Civil Service positions rather than those that fit the Scheme’s requirements. A more appropriate structure is needed.
Apart from that statement being basically without merit, Dr. Chandler should explain what is wrong with Civil Service rules. Also, she should specify which of the Civil Service positions at NIS do not fit into the Scheme’s requirements. I am not nor have I constituted myself as defender of NIS staff. But I could not allow subtlety disparaging remarks about them in particular or the Public Service, generally, to go unanswered.
It is true that most of the posts assigned to NIS are general service posts, which mean that officers occupying those positions could be reassigned to any government department that has similar posts. It is also true that there are posts and job requirements that are uniquely NIS positions. Those functions are done nowhere else in the Public Service or in Barbados for that matter.
Persons appointed to those posts cannot be transferred without their consent. I refer specifically to the twenty-four insurance officers, of varying grades, and seventeen inspectors whose job is to ensure compliance with NIS regulations. And, as a matter of fact, one of the qualifications, specified in the 2016 Public Service (Qualifications) Order is the Executive Diploma in Social Security Management which was offered by the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill. This clearly demonstrates that there were attempts to create specialists in National Insurance, albeit they being public officers.
Dr. Chandler’s assessment of the NIS staff and Civil Service rules would appear to come from someone who has been misled by anecdotes, rather than from a sound knowledge of the Public Service. Mind you, she is in good company with her mischaracterisation of the Public Service. Out of frustration with the Civil Service bureaucracy, no lesser person than the Rt. Excellent Errol Barrow, then Prime Minister, disparagingly called the service an army of occupation.
That term has since been used, by persons who did not know its meaning, to disparage the Public Service. Mr. Barrow was a military man so when he called the service an army of occupation, he did not mean that there were lots of people being employed. He used the term as a soldier would have understood it. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “army of occupation” as an army sent to control the territory of a conquered enemy. He meant that the Civil Service was in control, and he set about to break that control, however, with devastating consequences.
Prior to Independence, Barbados functioned well as a bureaucracy, where elected officials set policy and the Civil Service implemented the policy directives, in accordance with the established rules, which required too many checks and balances for Barrow’s liking. Rather than spend time to revise the rules to eliminate the excessive red tape, he devised a way to bring the service under the control of politicians.
In 1974 the Constitution was amended to give the Prime Minister the right to be consulted on the appointment of permanent secretaries, heads of department and their deputies. In practice, however, that consultation ended up meaning that the PM would make the decision and the service commissions and Governor-General would rubber stamp the appointment.
That single act has led to the politicisation and destruction of the professional Public Service, where senior public officers now owe their loyalty to the political party that oversaw their appointments. As a result, the senior public officers, who should be managing the Public Service and making professional decisions in the best interest of the Barbados, have been replaced by politicians without the necessary skills to manage the affairs of the country.
It is therefore unfair to blame public officers at NIS or any other department for the mess that the politicians have created.