PR and politicsFinancial secretary raising eyebrows in aggressive bid to sell budget to public
Financial Secretary Marlon Johnson has been more engaged in seeking to educate the public on the new budget than any other person serving in his position in recent years.
On the face of it, it does not seem inappropriate for Johnson, a senior public servant, to go before the public and answer questions about the government’s proposed spending plan and its plan to raise value-added tax (VAT) from 7.5 percent to 12 percent.
Explanations of technical points are helpful for some trying to make sense of how the government is managing their affairs.
However, the difficulty and pushback over what he has been doing has arisen from the fact that he has strayed into the political fray in his role as chief marketing officer for the new controversial budget.
Johnson is known in social media circles as a joke cracker and a real down-to-earth kind of guy.
But he has a very important job as an advisor to the government on fiscal matters.
Since Finance Minister Peter Turnquest delivered the budget communication on May 30, Johnson has been on Facebook painstakingly explaining details of the new budget to anyone who has questions.
But some social media posts have been dicey.
In one post, a Facebook user suggested Johnson was doing “damage control” for the government, which has been facing a firestorm since it announced a plan to increase VAT on July 1.
That user also suggested the Free National Movement won the May 10, 2017 general election based on misinformation.
Firing back, Johnson made a political argument, using the FNM’s talking points.
“Misinformation?” he asked. “It had nothing to do with the actual performance of the previous administration? The four downgrades? The massive run up of debt AFTER VAT? The inability to get Baha Mar open? The persistent scandals??
“In your view it was misinformation that caused the defeat of the former administration? Interesting.”
This was an unfortunate comment from the financial secretary.
If you did not know who wrote it you would be forgiven for assuming it was written by an FNM politician.
Johnson has also made what some might consider inappropriate jokes amid widespread concerns over the planned VAT hike.
In a private Facebook group “Speak Up Bahamas”, which has over 20,000 members, Johnson posted, presumably in response to being previously removed, “I’m back. Which one of y’all had me kicked out? Special 25% VAT for y’all mummy.”
The opposition is not finding Johnson’s wisecracks funny.
It is taking particular exception to the financial secretary delving into political waters – something prohibited by Public Servants General Orders, which govern the conduct of public servants.
Those orders state at 949(2), “The first duty of a public officer is to give his undivided allegiance to the state, that is, to the government of the day.
“In joining the public service, a public officer voluntarily enters a profession in which his service to the public will take a nonpolitical form; and whatever may be his political inclination, his impartiality in the performance of his duty must be beyond suspicion.
“It follows therefore that a public officer should not normally take any active part in matters of public, or political controversy, and particularly if the matter is one with which he is officially concerned.”
Johnson is smack-dab in the middle of the public and political controversy that has erupted over the budget and the plan to raise VAT.
Opposition Leader Philip Brave Davis raised this in the House of Assembly yesterday.
“It has been brought to my attention that a civil servant who holds the post of financial secretary is engaging on his Facebook, contrary to the public service rules… or whatever, in political chatter,” Davis said.
“In fact, I am advised today he has gone as far as to call the PLP corrupt.
“This is Mr. Marlon Johnson. I have been refraining from addressing him, but I ask the minister of finance, because he may not be a civil servant but he is engaging in the arena of politics.
“But for the financial secretary, or the acting financial secretary, to be engaged in the political rhetoric surrounding this exercise is contrary to the rules of the public service.
“He either ought to give up the post and get into the political arena with us to discuss it, or stay quiet.”
On Friday night, Johnson triggered strong backlash when he said on an ILTV program that while the government is concerned about possible job losses in the gaming industry as a result of increased taxes on gaming house revenue, Baha Mar is still hiring housekeepers and space cleaners.
Many people saw that comment as condescending and offensive.
Johnson later apologized for the blunder, but said his comment was misinterpreted.
Yesterday, the PLP called on the finance minister to give Johnson the “appropriate guidance” in the face of “adverse public commentary”.
We do not know that Johnson called the PLP corrupt.
We would be surprised if he, in fact, did.
Davis may be referencing Johnson’s highlighting of PLP scandals and mismanagement.
After the opposition leader raised the matter of the financial secretary in the House of Assembly, Turnquest seemed unnecessarily defensive. No doubt, he feels an obligation to defend matters connected to his portfolio and people in his ministry. But his response missed the mark.
Turnquest argued yesterday that the government has engaged the public on the budget to answer questions from the public.
He also said, however, “I think it is interesting that you go to somebody’s personal Facebook page or WhatsApp or whatever it is to talk about what they may say in the private confines of whatever it is that they are in.
“But, Mr. Speaker, we have to be careful about that, because all of us have a certain right, and this is where you get into data protection and all these kinds of things.
“There’s a lot of issues attendant to this. But one thing that is clear, Mr. Speaker, is that this Ministry of Finance, under this minister of finance, has made it a deliberate point for us to engage with the public, one on one, not to hide from the public anything and to have open and frank discussion with them.
“To the extent that we are not only electronically dealing with them, we are dealing with them on the level that we find them. Sometimes that is on social media.”
Turnquest here appeared to be making a conflicting statement.
On the one hand, he is suggesting that Johnson has a right to write whatever he wants on Facebook in a private capacity. On the other hand, he is talking about the financial secretary and the Ministry of Finance engaging people where they find them – including on social media.
Further, Johnson has already made it clear on Facebook that he is speaking in his capacity as financial secretary through his various posts.
After he made a statement on Facebook relative to the budget, one Facebook user asked, “Is this an official statement in your FS capacity, or just a run-of-the-mill social media chat?”
Johnson responded: “It is a statement as a public spokesman on matters related to fiscal policy.”
He has also told the public on Facebook: “VAT is likely here to stay. What will be reduced is customs and excise tax.”
To be clear, some on Facebook are grateful for what the financial secretary has been doing.
They said he has made the budget more understandable to them. They seem to appreciate the direct access to the financial secretary.
One user posed: “This is a huge step forward for transparency.”
The age of social media has changed considerations for and the behavior of public officials and politicians the world over.
In the United States, there is an ongoing discussion in mainstream media about the use of the president’s tweets. It is generally accepted that his tweets are fair game. He can set policy in just one tweet.
Ahead of the general election in The Bahamas last year, Facebook posts from FNM Leader Dr. Hubert Minnis were accepted as official statements.
If a public servant is talking about public policy on social media, then he can only be speaking in his capacity as a public servant.
No one has stolen his phone and made public private WhatsApp conversations or emails.
There is a thin line between informing the public about what many find to be complex matters, and coming across as a political messenger for the FNM, selling a message designed to portray a past administration as an incompetent group who posed a danger to our country.
It may be difficult to avoid crossing such a line in this matter of great public controversy.
It is clear that Johnson has not always stayed within the bounds of what can be considered acceptable behavior on the part of public servants.
If he has not yet done so, the finance minister should caution him in this regard.