Power play

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WHO runs this island? Who should run the island? It's the States, of course, but who actually holds the levers of power within our government?

WHO runs this island? Who should run the island? It's the States, of course, but who actually holds the levers of power within our government?

A while ago, that question might have been the cue for a debate about the relative merits of committee/consensus government as opposed to centralised cabinet government.

That big issue is now almost irrelevant. As many deputies brayed on about standing four-square against executive government, they meekly let it happen by default.

In fact, it's even worse than power being centralised to a few leading politicians. Instead, it's becoming clearer and clearer that the unelected civil servants are totally in charge.

Some deputies will claim that we must still have committee government because there are still departmental committees.

Tosh. Of course those committees still exist, but they've been so emasculated that they're almost irrelevant. It's worse than that – they are being used as a fig leaf to hide the fact that executive government has been sneaked in through the back door. Of course, they are also useful to blame for failings in their areas of 'responsibility', when in reality all big decisions are being taken at the centre by a coterie of senior civil servants.

If you doubt what I say, then I pose this question. If a departmental chief officer is given contradictory instructions by a political board and the States Chief Executive, whom will he heed?

A few years ago, it would have been his political masters every time. Today, in most cases, he will explain slightly sheepishly why he simply can't do what he's asked to do because the 'centre' won't let him. But of course his board can still take the flak if the centre has got it wrong.


Who is to blame for this state of affairs? I lay responsibility firmly at the feet of our deputies. They let it happen. Can you imagine some of the strong political personalities of 10 or 20 years ago allowing the civil servants to take over? Whatever one might think of some of their policies, Roger Berry, John Langlois or the late Bob Chilcott would have given short shrift to the idea of presiding over a department but allowing all the big decisions to be taken centrally.

I know it can be argued that centralisation brings efficiencies and joined-up government. But firstly, any move to effectively change our system of government should be the result of an informed decision by the States and not of a blind-side flanking move by the executive.

Secondly, our top civil servants' record in managing the performance of their colleagues hardly inspires confidence.

Let's take the education fiasco as an example. The problem went on for years and the top civil servants at the centre of government were well aware of it.


What did they do? Kept it hush-hush, swept it under the carpet and protected their fellow senior officers at the expense of Guernsey's youngsters.

At last, thanks to the persistence of a few deputies and this newspaper, the whole sorry story is blown open. What happens? The minister falls on her sword (eventually) but what about the senior officers?

The one that was in charge is moved sideways. Another, who was head teacher of the worst-failing school during most of its period of decline, is given a well-paid sinecure. And another key member of the team during those 'lost years' ends up getting promoted. All with the nod of approval from the top civil servants at the centre. Not so much man-management as an old boys' club.

Do we really expect the fiasco over the lost Lagan payment to be any different? So far, all we've seen is the sad loss of an old-school civil servant and the opportunity taken to change the staffing structure to concentrate even more power in the Teflon-clad hands at the centre of our public service.

If our politicians really want to show that they are still even remotely in charge, then they must rise to this occasion and shine a clear light on this whole episode.

If that discomfits some senior civil servants, then so be it. And they must make sure that there are consequences for anybody found at fault. After all, with power comes responsibility.

If they manage to do that, then perhaps it will give them the confidence to wrest back control of policy-making from their civil servants.

Or will it just be easier to go with the flow?

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