Fixing the carrying through problem
Have you ever wondered why, in more developed countries like Canada and Britain, governments seem to get things done relatively quickly, while in many developing countries, like our own Barbados, it seems to take forever for things to happen –– if they do happen at all?
The problem has to do with what is commonly called an implementation deficit or gap. The term refers to a chronic difficulty by ruling parties to translate policy intentions, articulated at election time, into concrete action that makes a real difference for the population in terms of delivering solutions to pressing needs.
Caribbean governments, for the most part, are beset by chronic implementation challenges. It is a source of major frustration for citizens whose expectations of quick remedies to their various problems are heightened by election promises, only to be dashed in many instances after they have voted the particular party into government. In response, politicians often pin blame on the civil service bureaucracy.
While this may very well be the case, the really crucial question is what are they doing to address these irritants, seeing that the purpose of government is not to complain or provide excuses for non-performance, but to provide solutions to problems. Developed countries like Canada and Britain which have Westminster systems of government and share Commonwealth membership with Caribbean countries, have found a solution to the implementation problem.
As part of the modernization of government, they are increasingly employing the services of trained and competent political aides to support cabinet ministers in the execution of various tasks and responsibilities related to the setting and implementation of public policy. This model is worth examining by Barbados and other regional countries looking to solve the implementation problem.
Especially in the case of cabinet ministers, political aides can add significant value by bringing a valuable political perspective to bear on issues. It serves to counterbalance the technical advice provided by the supposedly non-political civil service. In developed countries, political aides are also assigned to government backbenchers and opposition parliamentarians with the aim of delivering better service to their constituents and the wider citizenry.
In Canada, political aides perform myriad functions that can range from conducting research into current affairs to keep politicians up to date, drafting legislation, writing speeches and Press statements, and troubleshooting during crises. They also study public policy and policy alternatives, and suggest solutions to any current problems faced by politicians. They also attend meetings, deal with legislative staff, and may act as spokespersons for politicians at meetings or with the Press.
The increasingly important role being played by political aides in major democracies around the world reflects a professionalization of politics –– a trend which seems to have escaped the attention of most Caribbean governments. In our region, the minute someone is appointed a minister, he or she is considered an authority on government when, in fact,
he or she is not in most cases.
This is not the case in developed countries which explains why political aides are hired to support ministers, on being appointed, as chiefs of staff, ministerial advisers, communication specialists and in other roles.
The experience of working as a political aide can also provide valuable training for persons who aspire to enter elective politics in the future and to become political leaders. In Canada, the best known example is the present Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose first political job in Ottawa was as a parliamentary aide to an MP. Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron
and former Opposition Leader Ed Miliband also have a similar background.
In Barbados, political aides working for Cabinet ministers –– or rather political assistants as they are officially designated –– are relatively recent. Although it has been a long-standing practice here for the Prime Minister to have a personal aide and a Press secretary, none were assigned to ministers until during the last Barbados Labour Party (BLP) administration.
However, as I found out from conducting a training session some years ago, political assistants here can hardly be compared with their developed country counterparts. To begin with, they generally lacked the relevant knowledge and skills. As a result, they dealt with mostly routine matters at the constituency level while the more important policy issues were left to the civil servants in the various ministries.
If Caribbean governments are serious about addressing the implementation deficit and improving the delivery of service to citizens, they need to revisit the current model of choosing political assistants based primarily on party loyalty and look, instead, to hire persons who, additionally, are schooled and experienced in modern political practice and can bring considerable value to the table.
Public sector reform provides the ideal setting for the implementation of this model. Based on my research for an academic paper a few years ago, the experience of Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand shows beyond the shadow of a doubt that competent political aides can contribute substantially to making governments more effective in implementing and delivering
on their policy agenda.
Interestingly, the discussion on public sector reform in the Commonwealth Caribbean has never really examined the role of political aides. Civil servants and cabinet ministers have been the focus. Besides, the idea of a major role for political aides is likely to encounter some resistance from civil servants who can be quite territorial. They may see an expanded role for political aides as intrusion.
What is interesting is that despite years of pursuing public sector reform that was supposed to make regional governments more efficient, complaints about inefficiency and poor service persist. In Barbados, the Public Service has acknowledged these deficiencies.
“It is now widely recognized that Government must invent a radically different way of doing business in the public sector,” said a Government White Paper On Public Sector Reform back in 1996. “Barbados therefore needs to reform and re-engineer its governmental machinery in order to meet the challenges of a constantly changing global environment, as well as those of its own dynamic internal pressures.”
While I was doing research for the academic paper, I explained to a senior Government official here the work of political aides in more developed democracies and he agreed this model would make a difference for Barbados. Citing the drawn-out process of making and implementing decisions, he reckoned that Government would be able to “move and roll out things a lot faster” because
the amount of time would be slashed by “more than a half”.
Isn’t this what the public is asking for? In a 2012 paper, a UWI political scientist pointed to the likelihood of political aides playing a bigger role within Caribbean governments in the future. Citing dissatisfaction with the performance of regional leaders and growing public pressure on them to deliver more, the academic expressed the view that this might prompt the hiring of more political aides, especially in countries where few currently exist.
Naturally, there will be some resistance, but increasing professionalization of Caribbean politics in the future is inevitable.
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and journalist. Email firstname.lastname@example.org)