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Dogfights and tribalism: why you should scrutinise the Education vote

Richard Digard | Published:

ONE of the things we’re urged to do, whether in private, corporate or public life, is to take a long-term view of things. Especially big-ticket strategic decisions, the implications of which will roll down the generations.

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That’s why, for example, we’re still indebted to our Victorian forebears, who had the vision to leave us harbours, schools and other public buildings that are still in use today.

Some of the schools we’ve built, however, are monuments to short-termism and part of next week’s education debate will be influenced by decisions taken 30 years ago by politicians motivated by quick, easy and cheap and which led to the crumbling La Mare de Carteret.

For those of you with longer memories, just think back to the Bouet housing estate and the problems that monument to expediency created for this community.

And, yes, before you ask, this is prompted by the imminent great debate which will shape the future of education in Guernsey and impact on thousands of island children, many as yet unborn.

That’s a sobering thought, especially when you consider the damage that was unleashed on equally as many kids by previous Education Committee regimes because we were deliberately misled over how well/badly our educational system was actually performing.

So for a number of reasons, next week’s debate will mark a crossroads for this island in how it handles complex, controversial and strategic issues.

The reason I say that is, in the past we could be reasonably confident States members might argue hammer and tongs about something but the debate was over getting the best result for the Bailiwick.

Alas, that’s no longer the case and it underlines the decline of statesmanship I’ve tried to highlight here over the past 12 months or so.

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As one business contact of mine put it last week, ‘It is extremely concerning when one of the biggest decisions to be debated is degenerating into personal dog-fights. Apparently, some will vote purely to spite certain members in Policy & Resources and others are voting because they will not vote the same way as another deputy and it is all very sad.’

This individual is no stranger to public life and well connected, but it was nevertheless a stark and disturbing assessment. It couldn’t be correct, surely?

I checked with a senior States member whom most would accept as pretty level-headed.

‘A new and destructive brand of populism is emerging which… has significant impact on behaviour, the tone of debate and the quality of decision-making,’ they said.

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‘The question “what is the safest thing to do with the next election in mind?” has replaced “what is the right thing to do with the best interests of the island in mind?” and that is alarming and depressing.’

There was a lot more – plus from others I haven’t quoted here – because the sense of dismay about how things have deteriorated is widespread.

Which means that the outcome of the education debate should be clear-cut: overwhelming support for the alternative, two-school model.

The reasons for that are simple.

No one can have any faith in the current committee.

Its conduct, judgement and behaviour have all been lamentable and unacceptable. It has failed utterly to earn the respect and confidence of islanders.

Even if it does win the day, can any of us have faith that the committee collectively has the ability to pilot what will remain controversial proposals through to a successful conclusion?

By contrast, the alternative proposals have been put together with a skill and focus absent from the ESC’s own policy letter and address the central issues from a strategic and ‘best for Bailiwick’ perspective. Uncluttered, if you will, by previous baggage or hang-ups about buildings.

If you doubt that, look at their latest amendment, which homes in on the need to repeal the Education (Guernsey) Law, 1970, to improve governance and give far greater powers to the schools and their own boards of governors. Central to that is – finally – reducing the size, influence and cost of the central Education Office.

Picking up, in fact, on some of the concerns expressed by consultants PwC in their cost and benchmarking report and largely ignored by ESC.

So where we are is that one of the most critical debates in decades remains finely balanced and likely to be decided along tribal lines. Yes, it’s profoundly depressing, which is why I’d keep a close eye on how your deputy votes if I was you.

ONE of the casualties of the changing behaviours of some States members is the relationship between politicians and their civil service advisers.

We’re all aware of the damage that’s been caused at Education, where the then chief officer was redeployed by the States chief executive after some, shall we say, difficulties with the politicians. Or at least some of them.

To be clear, I’m not making allegations of bullying, but what if some of the things we’re hearing are true?

If undue pressure is being applied to civil servants, can their advice to deputies be considered impartial?

These are deep waters and, so I’m led to believe, affecting a number of departments. They were, to a degree, touched upon by PwC in that benchmarking report I mentioned earlier.

My own view is that we’re fast approaching the time when an audit or survey of cultures is needed so that staff – and deputies, come to that, as we’re always told the civil servants are in control – can give anonymised feedback on whether there’s bullying in the system or not.

I know the ‘B’ word is strong, but in this case it’s more about whether officers are able to give clear, independent and best advice without being shouted down and how acceptance or otherwise of that professional guidance affects policy-making.

Before you say it’s a waste of time and money, remember that the post-Fallagate ‘Good Governance’ survey of 2009 concluded, among many other failures, that Guernsey does not have effective systems of accountability and scrutiny in place; and lacks appropriate mechanisms to address concerns regarding the conduct of States’ deputies and staff.

At the very least, have things improved since then?

In addition, as Dr Ian Peter said in his 2016 report on organisational culture for the Chartered Institute of Internal Auditors:

‘Organisations are taking an interest in culture like never before; not because they are being forced to, but because they know a healthy culture is integral to their bottom lines, even their survival. Furthermore, public and regulatory scrutiny of ethics and behaviour has become even more intense.’

In effect, such a survey is – or should be – a vital part of the reforms of the public sector already in hand. Similarly, the results would show what progress has been made… or how far we still have to go.

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