Front Porch | In grateful praise of Bahamas public officers
• This column is dedicated to two of the finest public officers (unnamed) this writer has known and admired for a lifetime.
When the late Sir Rodney Bain, who was the first Bahamian secretary to the Cabinet, was tragically killed in a car accident while still in office, senior members of the Sir Lynden Pindling Cabinet rushed to the scene of the accident, horrified and reeling.
It was a personal loss for his family, friends and colleagues. The death was also a blow to the government and the country.
The untimely death of the first Bahamian to head the public service in a newly independent Bahamas saddened Bahamians of all political stripes. Sir Rodney, an Anglophile, was a courtly gentlemen. He was also deeply, loyally Bahamian.
Unlike the British heads of the civil service, Bain’s compelling interest was the advancement and development of a sovereign Bahamas, which became independent amidst a global economic turbulence, including the October 1973 oil embargo by OPEC, which plummeted the world into panic and recession.
On becoming minister of communications in 1968, Arthur Foulkes was determined to quickly Bahamianize his ministry. He insisted on replacing his British permanent secretary with a Bahamian, Hartis Thompson, who at the time was serving as director of Civil Aviation.
In its early days, when the newly minted PLP was still intent on promoting a multicultural society, the appointment of Thompson, a white Bahamian, served as an example of this commitment. Thompson served ably and with distinction.
Post-independence, the public service has grown in numbers and in the quality of officers. We enjoy a more sophisticated bureaucracy in terms of personnel and the myriad functions of a 21st century government, four years shy of the country’s 50th anniversary of independence.
The love of country and patriotism exhibited by Bain and his generation of public officers is exemplified throughout the contemporary public service.
Lois Wells Symonette was an exuberant spirit who relished the work of public administration. She became a leading expert on government and demonstrated a “can do” attitude. She mastered the system left by the British.
Having served in a number of ministries, she eventually became director of Public Personnel. Wells Symonette enthusiastically ensured the training, education and promotion of talent in the public service.
Today, many public officers, current and retired, including senior officers, gratefully recall Wells Symonette and the role she played as a mentor and in the advancement of their careers.
She spoke often of what she enjoyed most in her long career: watching the flourishing of talented Bahamian public officers.
After her retirement, she continued to serve in other capacities. A capstone of her service was her publication of “Understanding Government with a Bahamian Perspective”, a treasury of information on the public sector.
Teresa Butler began her public service career as a teacher at R.M. Bailey High School. Her storied career took her eventually to the Office of the Prime Minister, where she served as permanent secretary for a number of years.
After retirement, she served as senior policy advisor to former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham. Butler served with integrity and distinction, playing a significant role in the reform and modernization of the public sector and the country.
There are few people who are indispensable in their fields. Butler, a progressive policy expert, with a passion for equality and the environment, was one of them.
She was indispensable to both Ingraham and to the modernization of a moribund bureaucracy and country, both of which atrophied and became stagnant after a quarter century of increasing misrule and inertia.
Her colleague Joshua Sears had a somewhat similar trajectory. Both served in the Foreign Ministry and at the Bahamas Embassy in Washington D.C. Today, Sears serves as senior policy advisor to Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Ingraham.
Like Sir Rodney, Wells Symonette and Butler, Joshua Sears exemplifies the love of country, dedication and quality of service of scores of public officers over several generations.
With quiet aplomb, Sears and countless other public officers have lent their education and professionalism to the goals of a prosperous, peaceful and more just society.
We know the ritual and understandable complaints and problems in the public sector. There are deficiencies of competence, personnel and procedures. The bureaucracy can be mind-numbingly slow and inept, endlessly frustrating Bahamians.
Still, we often fail to extend deserved praise to the public officers who spend careers protecting our streets and borders; educating our children; caring for our health; monitoring our environment, and administering departments and ministries among a much longer list of public service.
There is excellence in our public service. The Bahamas Public Service is populated with professionals who often far outstrip in talent, expertise and judgement, many in the private sector, which is also often rife with incompetence and lethargy.
There are public officers, who earn considerably less than quite a number in private enterprise, though the former may be more talented and productive. But there is a satisfaction many of these officers enjoy including their significant contributions to national development and the common good.
The dismissive and contemptuous treatment by staff in a number of commercial banks, mostly in recent years, stands in contrast to many public officers who serve with consideration and empathy.
We tend to breezily generalize about the merits of the private sector and the demerits of the public sector. Reality is invariably more multi-faceted.
This is not to deny that there are quite a number of surly and condescending public officers who can ruin one’s day because of their attitudes or gross inefficiency. But, there is an increasing quality of service in a number of areas.
Teresa Butler recalls the absence or shortage of computers when she first went to work at the Office of the Prime Minister in the aftermath of Category 5 Hurricane Andrew, which devastated parts of the country in August 1992, shortly after the FNM and Ingraham were first elected to office.
The PLP created and populated essential national institutions, ministries and departments. Then, during his 15 years as head of government, Ingraham pushed and dragged The Bahamas into the modern world.
His administrations played a pivotal role in modernizing public infrastructure and our tourism plant and government bureaucracy, including legislation, administrative structure and physical infrastructure.
The work of reform is an ongoing process. In April of this year, Dr. Hubert Minnis announced an Inter-American Development Bank loan entitled “Government Digital Transformation to Strengthen Competitiveness”.
The loan is geared toward modernizing and digitizing “public services and government”. The ambitious project is headed by Permanent Secretary Elise Delancy, a former educator, who served as a teacher and principal in the government-operated school system.
Delancy is another example of a committed and highly capable public officer, whose love of country and education, and professional ethos were bequeathed to her by her mother, Eula Delancy, another progressive spirit and determined patriot who also served as a teacher and principal, including in the government-operated system.
In announcing the government digitization program, the prime minister noted: “While government ministries and departments have made advances in digitization for years, they do not digitally talk to each other. They tend to remain in their silos.
“This puts the onus on the citizen to do what government should be doing. Government should work for the people and not the other way around.”
He continued: “We will employ a ‘once only’ policy so that when one government agency owns or has a document or a bit of data every other agency will be prohibited from requesting the very same document again and again and again.
“This is ridiculous and unfair. The new system will be designed for interoperability in which requisite data will be verified by the system. No longer will the Passport Office or the Ministry of the Public Service ask you for your birth certificate or marriage certificate.”
Such a far-reaching program will require more than technological changes. It will primarily require changes in culture, attitude and leadership. And change must be consistent and driven in every government agency in order for genuine reform to take place.
If only some agencies change while others remain the same, progress will be stymied and glacial.
Approaching 50 years of national sovereignty, there is still much work to be done to improve the public service, especially our administrative core and corps, and especially in senior positions.
Yet, even as we honestly face our deficiencies and promote change, let us continue to offer grateful praise for those past and current public officers to whom we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude for their integrity, excellence, work ethic and their service to country.