Political prisoners

GOOD governance is the critical success factor for all types of organisations including government – yet it’s not an easy concept to define and depends on who you ask. When it’s working well it’s the invisible hand that helps guide the functioning of an organisation. When it’s absent it becomes evident in the calamity and disharmony that bedevils an organisation.


At the Institute of Directors breakfast briefing in December, I summarised and shared my views on Professor Catherine Staite’s report on the efficiency and effectiveness of the Policy & Resource Committee, which by necessity required the professor to also review and make comment on Guernsey’s machinery of government and governance practices.

Professor Staite identified the key elements of good governance to include independence, openness and transparency, accountability and clarity of purpose in government, it covers the ways of working of the civil service and elected representatives.

Ultimately, government exists to further and protect the interests of the population. Politicians and the civil service are ultimately servants of the people. To function cohesively, they need to devise and agree on ways of working that clearly define each others’ roles and agree on an organisation-wide plan to deliver the vital and critical services to the community they serve.

Neither the elected representatives nor the civil service alone can deliver good governance without agreement on ways of working, reinforced by open communication and cooperation.

As Professor Staite recently identified, ‘Good governance is developed and maintained by the continual, collective application of effort, self-awareness, mutual trust and mutual challenge’. It also requires a good dose of humility.

However, as also identified by Professor Staite, one has to question if the current system of government in Guernsey is fit for purpose.

After careful analysis of the opportunities and challenges associated with the workings of the current structure of Guernsey’s government, Professor Staite concluded that the natural advantages of Guernsey’s small and single system of government are lost because of the institutional design of its government. In particular, Professor Staite felt that ‘delivery of government by consensus, whilst commendable in principle, actually drains the committees and their supporting civil service structure of energy and effectiveness’.

This is a sobering message that warrants reflection. It’s probably not something that the current Assembly can do much about, but it certainly needs addressing by the next one.

In this regard I have no doubt that the current cohort of elected deputies are individually good people who ran for office with the aim to make a positive contribution to Guernsey. They undoubtedly work long hours and do their best. However, despite their best efforts they are prisoners of the system.

Some of the identified shortcomings identified by Professor Staite stem from the structure of Guernsey’s single government, which functions both as a local and national government. This leads to an inability for the States to hold itself to account. It struggles to perform both an executive and scrutiny role. We’ve seen a number of high-profile examples of this in recent years.

An important observation was that the States’ power is dispersed across the committee system, each operating independently and not accountable to a higher order other than to the whole of the Assembly.

We have seen how the supposedly senior committee, namely P&R, is powerless other than by influence to enforce its will or to sanction when it sees poor behaviour. Given Guernsey’s consensus style of government, the notion of power and leadership are taboo subjects.

Deputy St Pier has done a great job as leader of the House without any inherited power. He doesn’t have the right to hire or fire or to appoint a cabinet. It’s a case of tip-toeing around personalities and egos. Full marks to him for the effective manner in which he has performed his role, but there is no guarantee a future appointee would perform as effectively. In the observations of Professor Staite, ‘the contestation of the committee’s authority, and lack of levers or sanctions to enable the committee to support the improved performance and behaviours of other committees and deputies, collectively or individually, [also] undermines organisational effectiveness and gives rise to significant reputational risk’.

Just as the Harwood Report did in 2001, Professor Staite’s concluded that a notable flaw in the committee system is the tendency for silos to develop. I can’t take the matter any further or put the issue in better context than to note verbatim Professor Staite’s observation for the States committee system to maximise its effectiveness, ‘it is necessary for politicians to demonstrate behaviours that are collaborative, not competitive, not maverick, selfless, not self-serving and considered, not impetuous. A high level of political competence is also vital. It is asking a lot of any diverse group of politicians, some of who are relatively new, to demonstrate so many sophisticated political skills in order to enable the committee system to operate effectively’.

Professor Staite concluded, ‘the necessary skills and behaviours are not currently demonstrated consistently by enough Guernsey deputies to overcome the inherent weaknesses of the committee system…’.

Professor Staite also identified a lack of clarity, purpose and effectiveness in the States’ strategic planning process. The P&R plan has become too unwieldy and suffers from an absence of a clear ‘golden thread’ aligning priorities and hence suffers from a lack of shared vision of purpose across the elected Assembly.

I see last year’s referendum result as Guernsey’s Brexit moment. The people of Guernsey rejected the status quo, with the overwhelming majority of voters calling for a change to the current election system, with the most favoured option being island-wide voting.

Changing the system alone, however, won’t be enough to dramatically change the workings of government. I believe the referendum result was an emphatic call for change in Guernsey’s machinery of government.

Given the significant issues needing the States’ urgent attention, Guernsey needs a system of government that facilitates strategic decision-making, not one that is ensconced in controversy and dysfunction.

I’ll finish with the words of Henry Ford, namely, ‘if you do as you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got’.

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