A-M u s i n g s: Public Service Matters

I’ve been around a long time, but for most of that time, I used to be a bit of a recluse. I recall attending a New Year’s lunch at Mr. Wayne’s house and overhearing someone luminous ask, ‘Is THAT michael walker?” My name was spoken in lower case letters. I think I had just started writing in the STAR.

I don’t think I ventured out into the public eye – except on Rotary duty – until around 1998 when, encouraged by Didacus Jules and his Minister, Mario Michel, I started working seriously in schools. But even in those distant days – and I resist the temptation of saying ‘dark and distant’ days, because they were not at all dark; politically, they were brilliant, inspirational, full of shining aspiration as Kenny and his Crew swept to power on persuasive promises – yes, even in those distant days, I was acutely aware of the growth of the public service in this Lilliputian Nation.

Here are the facts: According to the Government of Saint Lucia’s Public Sector Reform White Paper of the year 2000 – the Kenny Government’s own version of the facts – this is how the Public Service grew during the first years of his administration:

In 1997, Saint Lucia was protected by 592 police officers. By 1999, the police force had grown by 237 officers to 829, an almost 40% increase. Whether or not the population of Saint Lucia felt 40% more secure, or whether the crime rate diminished by 40% is, for the moment, neither here nor there, but you might, Dear Reader, be tempted to question the efficacy of simply increasing the number of police officers when attempting to fight crime. I rather suspect that crime and insecurity have continued to rise in the past decade-and-a-half despite the increase in the numbers of police officers.

Nursing care was quite a different problem. Somehow, Kenny and his Crew must have felt confident that Saint Lucians were receiving more than adequate health care. From 1997 to 1999, the number of nurses employed by government dropped from 315 to 212, or 33%. Obviously, the government believed its people to be in very good health. Similarly, death and destruction by fire was not viewed as a problem. The Fire Service showed a modest increase from 184 to 197 officers. Education, always a stated priority by any government, saw an increase in teaching staff from 2,249 to – whoops! Sorry – decrease, yes, decrease to 2,243. Hmm, interesting, that one.

The Public Service, or rather the segment of the public service that the government referred to as ‘Civil Servants’, showed an incredibly healthy growth rate. In 1995, the country was managed by 2,017 civil servants. A year later, the number had increased by 14 to 2,041. By 1997, this number had grown by a surprising 109 to 2,150.

One of the easiest, but in my mind stupidest, ways for government to increase employment opportunities is to employ people by using other people’s tax dollars. Yes, yes, I am aware that the private sector, if it employs more people, will have to increase its prices to cover its additional costs. But the private sector is free to make that choice, and people are free to seek cheaper sources for their purchases if they do not like the prices, unless, of course, as is unfortunately the case in Saint Lucia, monopolies, or near monopolies, exist that can dictate prices as they wish; we have no choice in our choice of provider for electricity; we have limited choice in the supplier of our foodstuffs; we have an abundance of choices when it comes to building supplies and hardware. And government made sure we had choices when it came to telecommunications – so it can be done!

You see, Dear Reader, the government took the easy way out. From 1997, when the government employed 2,150 civil servants, to 1999 – that’s a time period of just two years – the government increased the number of civil servants to 3,950, or an 84% increase, that’s almost double the number of people ‘needed’ – or, at least ‘needed’ in the eyes of government ministers eager to show how well they could create jobs – to look after the rest of us.

Remember, this was 1999, fifteen years ago. If we count all the ‘casual’ labour the government now employs through its various programs and consultancy schemes, well, the mind boggles. I’ll take a wild guess, a really wild guess, and guess that of the 60,000 or so people employed in Saint Lucia today, probably a quarter, 1 in every 4, or 25% is, in some way, on the government payroll, or rather, paid for through higher taxes on those who work in the private sector.

And please don’t raise that hoary old argument about civil servants paying taxes too – all they are doing is giving government back some of the money government gave them in the first place!

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