On Inertia

I’m in my third year of employment as a civil servant.  I started out in this profession, twenty-odd years ago.  I worked as a civil servant for three years, and left to enter the teaching profession.  Some people thought I was crazy; I was taking a pay cut, I was moving to apparently sub-standard working conditions (no air conditioning in the classroom, no secretaries to do work for me, no downtime — I was working in a small church school, where free periods were few and far between), I was leaving a job with Connections to go to one with None.

I was as happy as a clam.

Poor, yes, but happy.  The reason?  At the end of a day as a teacher, I had the sense that I’d got something done.  At the end of a week, that sense of accomplishment was palpable; at the end of a year, when students had shown what they had (or hadn’t) learned, it could be rewarding. And the pride I have in knowing that I shared in some small way in the achievements of a new generation of Bahamians is priceless.

Twenty years later, I’m back in the public service.  My job is rewarding in a different way.  I’m never bored.  No two days are alike.  We’re living in an exciting time, a time of radical change.  There are tides sweeping through nations, especially little ones, and we have to be ready to ride them or drown.  It’s a good time to be a civil servant.

The trouble is that the civil service isn’t ready to experience the good time.  The profession is governed by inertia.

Now for those of you who don’t know what it means, here’s what Webster’s Third New International Dictionary has to say: INERTIA : indisposition to motion, exertion, or action : resistance to change.  These big dictionaries give you phrases to help you make sense of the words they define, and here’s what Webster’s gave: “social inertia, the tendency of animals to continue repeating the same action in the same place”.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

The biggest problem with the civil service in The Bahamas is that it’s indisposed to action, resistant to change.  This is not unique to The Bahamas, by the way.  It is a fundamental tenet of bureaucracy.  It took me some time, for example, to get over my surprise that the Canadian bureaucracy is just as bad and the British bureaucracy is worse (whereas here, a who-ya-know or a well-targeted dollar can speed the process around here, there’s no way around those public servants).  But the problem is very real.

The problem is simple.  Government is designed to protect the status quo.  (It is very often nothing to do with the party in power.)  Conservatism is hammered into the system from the ground up.  The System itself is god; there is no power higher than it.  Change itself goes in as change, and never comes out at all.

Inertia.

Now lest you think that I am advocating a complete doing-away with the structures that slow down movement, that absorb light and break it into a million tiny pieces, each darker than the first, that break up good ideas to make them “workable”, let me assure you that I’m not.  Governments are designed to manage the assets of nations.  They are set in place to curb the excesses of politicians, who are naturally enthusiastic and energetic people who want things to be done in a rush (because short periods of time in which to prove themselves).  In the Westminster system, the two tiers of governance are designed to complement one another and to ensure that countries survive from administration to administration.  Civil servants are permanent employees, people who are put in place to maintain stability.  They are supposed to guard the assets of the country, to take the long view, to think about what happens twenty years form now, while elected officials scramble to keep old promises or make new ones.  It’s not a bad system, on paper.

The problem is that the world is moving too fast for it.  Paper is a wonderful medium, but it’s now obsolete.  In a world where — as someone involved in the mass media put it very recently — today’s technology can become obsolete next week, a system in which a single idea can take eight months to be decided upon is inadequate to meet the needs of our nation.  And a profession in which individuals still expect to remain employed for life, no matter how they perform or how much they actually achieve, is a dinosaur in a world where change is so rapid that universities have now taken on the challenge of preparing graduates to be able to switch careers twice or three times in a lifetime.

The civil service as designed is crippling the development of The Bahamas. I’ve argued before that the version that we have in place was never intended to govern a free nation; what we have has grown out of an institution set up to manage the assets of an empire.  The system is too open to abuse by the malicious and too inflexible to accommodate creativity.  Good ideas are easy to kill; they can be buried in paper, or strangled by budget constraints.  Because inertia rules, change has to struggle to survive.

The time has come to rethink our civil service — not to do away with it, because it is a necessary balance to the imperatives of the elected — but to dissect it, evaluate it, and rebuild it from the ground up.  It’s time for the civil service to be designed to achieve things — and not to maintain things as they have always been, world without end, amen.

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