On shaky grounds

Whenever public officials insist that they broke no laws or regulations, it is usually because they have flagrantly flouted an ethical principle. And it is such principles which give force and meaning to laws, rules, and regulations.

So when now-retired permanent secretary Cheryl Blackman insists that she did nothing wrong in accepting an all-expenses paid trip to Jamaica from then-works minister Jack Warner, she is on firm legal ground. “I and the ministry staff broke no rules or no laws,” said Ms. Blackman. But she is simultaneously on very shaky ethical grounds, and a PS of Ms. Blackman’s long tenure should know this. If she doesn’t, then that hardly reflects well on the professional standards she may or may not have applied as a senior public servant.

What makes Ms. Blackman’s argument specious is that the spirit of the law is even more important than the letter, simply because the letter can never cover every situation. Indeed, Ms. Blackman, as a career public servant, would be well aware that the main complaint citizens make about the Civil Service is its unwieldy bureaucracy. That bureaucracy is, however, necessary in order to ensure that the powers of the State are not abused.

Ironically, politicians have frequently complained that public servants use bureaucracy to stymie their attempts to run the country. That may be so, but there are too many instances where it appears that the opposite happens – i.e. public servants facilitate actions by politicians which they should in fact be preventing.

After all, as this country’s political history amply demonstrates, persons in power always find ways to flout ethical principles while not doing anything strictly illegal. The outcome is invariably poor governance and outright corruption. And, in the latter case, public servants are often complicit since they usually know that regulations are being bent or broken, but remain silent, justifying their own inaction by some curious standard of professional confidentiality. This is why, without ethics, laws are either empty or oppressive.

So, although better bureaucratic systems are certainly necessary for good governance, this is never the real solution, even in developed polities. Instead, a common understanding and adherence to principle allows even defective bureaucracies to function efficiently. It appears, however, that such a culture is not extant in the Public Service of Trinidad and Tobago. If it were, Ms. Blackman and her colleagues could never have thought it allowable to accept a vacation package from any government minister, let alone their line minister, on the basis that they “broke no rules”.

They may not have. But they did compromise their roles as public servants, and it’s by such small steps that corruption in high places becomes a norm.

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