Crisis management

NEWS that the States is to be asked to set up a formal tribunal of inquiry into the shambles that was Education’s appointments process triggered an involuntary smile the other week – probably for all the wrong reasons.

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Not just the memories of an equally shambolic process that led to the last one, which was the willingness by elements of government to close the airport for around 10 days because of a dispute with the firefighters there.

Nor the fact that calls for such an investigation into what was ultimately a governance issue were led by Deputy Mary Lowe, who now finds herself at the centre of an equally serious row over appropriate behaviours at Home Affairs, which she heads.

Instead, it was why a tribunal is regarded as the only plausible approach in the schools appointments controversy.

The reason hinges on trust and confidence. Not just that, according to the Scrutiny Management Committee (SMC), islanders no longer have it in their government – which is bad enough – but because government no longer has it in itself.

To explain, SMC can’t carry out an inquiry because it knows it would be accused of being partisan and, anyway, its chair is a former member of Education Sport & Culture. It can’t, for its future credibility, risk its findings being treated like those of HM Inspectorate of Constabulary or Professor Staite after opening the lid on Home Affairs.

More fundamentally, SMC can’t rely on those it needs to interrogate about the Education recruitment process because it has no powers to compel witnesses to either turn up, disclose information or even tell the truth.

Disturbing stuff, so a formal tribunal of inquiry is as near as dammit a court hearing and can enforce attendance, disclosure of documents and evidence under oath. Any failure to comply is contempt of court, with penalties that include jail. It also affords legal protection to witnesses – you can’t subsequently be done for defamation by a vengeful deputy or civil servant with deep pockets because of something you said about them.

It’s an impressive bit of legal kit that dates back to 1949, shortly after the German Occupation ended, and was an essential element of rebuilding the island. Specifically, it was designed to provide once-and-for-all resolution to something the States decided was of ‘urgent public importance’.

So you can see that Scrutiny is indeed unlimbering heavy cannon. As well it might, given it summarises the issues at hand as ‘alleged political interference, a rigged process and poor governance’. It’s also worth remembering that the decision to do so has been taken by a committee that includes two politically astute lawyers, fully aware of what the stakes are.

Unlike the earlier airport situation, which would have been a fully-fledged island crisis, this is less immediately serious. The lights still come on and there’s no civil unrest on the streets.

It is nevertheless profoundly disappointing that we have reached this point given this is yet again an issue of trust and confidence in the States triggered by alleged breaches of good governance.

I say that because the massively impressive report from the last tribunal in 2010 identified that the fundamental problem was how the island runs itself: ‘The failure to deal with the underlying problem… stems from the system of government which does not encourage either a corporate approach or collective responsibility. In our view there was a systemic failure to act in a corporate and strategic manner.’

It also went on to recommend that the States makes a commitment to good governance, implements that commitment, and institutes an education and training programme to ensure that promise is honoured.

You’ll not be surprised that few of the report’s main recommendations were acted upon and here we are again openly wondering whether we know what good looks like or if ‘the States’ can be relied on to do the right thing for the proper reasons.

If you view the centre of the universe that is Guernsey in the same way as me – a fragile island ecosystem uniquely protected by an 800-year-old link to the UK Crown and nourished by a steady stream of other people’s wealth that we look after for them – you’re already pretty nervous.

Maintaining that haven in a hostile and uncertain world takes skill, creativity and a degree of unanimity of purpose. A joined-up States, if you will. Yes, there are pockets of excellence, but collectively – as the need for a tribunal of inquiry demonstrates – it keeps letting itself down.

Ultimately, I suppose, the question for me is whether you could rely on this Assembly in a crisis. Closing the airport back in 2009 over a firefighter pay and retention dispute would undoubtedly have been one.

It was avoided largely by chance through a trade union call to the then editor of this newspaper and a mass meeting of firefighters also attended by the then chief minister and the brand new head of HR.

The last tribunal of inquiry was Lyndon Trott’s punishment beating for daring to try to prevent catastrophe – I got off with a late finish and a front page exclusive – but it doesn’t fill you with confidence for the next time it all hits the fan because, yet again, no lessons have been learned and nothing has really changed.

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