Wed | Dec 12, 2018

Patria-Kaye Aarons | The evil game of political tribalism

Published:Tuesday | September 18, 2018 | 12:00 AM

I'm struggling to take a hard-line position on the issue of political appointments. The age-old practice has always troubled me.

Once there is a change of government, start counting the casualties of war.

It's par for the course that not only are the boards of government agencies many times totally replaced, but senior managers always cower in fear of losing their positions. And the fear is warranted.

The elected country head and his inner circle decide who works at the pleasure of the prime minister, and new employment contracts are dished out to party loyalists faster than Oprah can give away free cars. "You get a job, and you get a job."

It's a practice in principle that I abhor. This nepotistic rewarding of cronies by giving them high-powered, high-paying jobs in the public sector. Essentially, financing your lackey payroll with taxpayers' money.

I hate the stench.

In last week's sitting, chairman of the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee, Wykeham McNeill, made the point that the Westminster model to which Jamaica subscribes is intended to preserve continuity. Though boards may change, public-sector workers ought to be a repository of knowledge. It should, in my mind, also ensure that a level of impartiality is applied when deciding on the strategic objectives of a government agency. Even when new administrations are put in, gains made over time ought not be undone by petty political maliciousness. The model should ensure people always come before politics.

But if we are going to be honest, that hasn't always happened. We function in a society rife with mistrust and tribal undermining.

Imagine trying to inspire change in an organisation using the very staff intent to see you fail. Imagine trying to turn around an agency with endemic palm-greasing and internal corruption, hoping that the very culprits will make the change. Imagine trying to motivate a workforce loyal to the opposition to not be lazy.

Good luck.

 

PRINCIPLES UNDERSTOOD

 

For those reasons, I understand the principle of changing out persons in critical positions. I'm inclined more and more to see the practice as a necessary evil to get the job done.

I can't fault any administration, orange or green, for wanting to staff their agencies with people who mean them well. With people who won't deliberately sabotage progress and stubbornly resist change because it isn't going to benefit 'their party'. If we are to fairly judge the policies and progress of any party, we must fairly allow them a free hand to chart the course.

However, two rules must be followed:

1. Don't displace hard-working civil servants. Oftentimes, conclusions are made about political affiliations (real or imagined) and political labels are unfairly placed on innocent persons. When the purging process becomes a grand witch-hunt, that's just political victimisation. And that cannot be allowed.

Don't remove someone doing their job just to make space for your people. Know the difference between a tribal saboteur and a regular public servant who just didn't vote for your party. He, too, has a right to a job, and the skill and sensibility to do that job well, no matter the ruling party.

2. The replacement person must be qualified and competent. If you're going to make a political appointment, employ persons who will shine. If you simply inject an inept party sympathiser, not only does it magnify your tribalism, but you, too, look incompetent. And your growth objectives will never be met. Best you choose someone who will not only be your eyes and ears, but who will also do the job - well.

The entrenched tribalism that plays out in the public sector is sad, but I understand why it happens. The never-ending battle between proficiency and politics hurts Jamaica more than it does parties and their loyalists. The critical function all of us must play is to be corruption watchdogs. We must vigilantly try to spot the difference between a qualified supporter getting a job and an incompetent activist getting a reward.

- Patria-Kaye Aarons is a broadcaster and confectioner. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and findpatria@yahoo.com, or tweet @findpatria.