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Do politicians fear competent people?
By Oliver Mills
(Oliver Mills is a former lecturer in Education at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus. He holds an M.Ed degree. from Dalhousie University in Canada and an MA from the University of London. He is a past Permanent Secretary in Education with the government of the Turks and Caicos Islands)
A number of highly competent persons who have worked, and are working with some politicians often express the view that they get the impression that these politicians have a certain attitude towards them, which makes them feel uncomfortable.
This attitude is often characterised by not asking for opinions and suggestions on issues to do with the politician’s responsibilities, reminding competent persons of who is in charge, ignoring their presence at the office, or even outside it, and even when competent persons offer ideas, cold water is poured on them, with the politician becoming dismissive.
This kind of attitude not only causes poor relationships between the politician, and those who are there to assist, or desire to do so, but poisons the atmosphere of the department concerned.
This topic about not using competent people in government sufficiently is taken up by Martin Daly, a columnist for the Trinidad Express newspaper, in an article titled, ‘Not for lack of Brains.’ In it, he speaks about a book launching he attended dealing with his country’s development over the years.
He states that the particular book demonstrates how his country has under-performed in key areas, despite its relative wealth of resources and talent.
He notes that, at the book launching, there were persons with considerable brain power, and solid experience, but some had never been invited to give their views on development strategy, and states that where this brain power and experience had made a recognisable contribution to development strategy, the output resulting from it was largely discarded in preference for short-term partisan political objectives.
The columnist regards as troubling that the brain power and experience that are available to serve development purposes are ignored by the rulers of the system, and that they even fear it. He adds that, if the country is in decline, it is not for the lack of brains.
What Martin Daly deals with here is common to many Caribbean countries, some independent, and those that are on the independence path. His observations reveal a disconnect between competence, represented by brain power and experience, and the goals and strategies of development.
The fact is that competence, or brain power can be used to analyse the factors inhibiting development, brainstorm several approaches, and arrive at those strategies that could be implemented to carry the process of development forward.
Competent individuals can also monitor the implementation process to determine what qualitative changes need to be made, in light of new developments, to ensure the success of the development strategies.
This scientific approach to development differs completely from that of those who seek only short-term gains, without the sustainability and predictability that come from a deeper assessment of the issues.
Short-term gains, advocated by hasty, uninformed politicians and some others who advise them, will soon fizzle out, since they lack substance, and there is nothing solid to them. They raise hopes, which are soon dashed by realities.
A serious, competent audit of the situation, and the issues surrounding it, and what needs to be done to move the process to a higher level, can only be provided by competent people with the skills and knowledge to evaluate what needs to be done to make the right choices.
Short-sighted politicians, and some of their political people who think they can flip a switch, and everything will fall into place, will be found to be totally mistaken about situations, and the strategies required to get things straight, and right.
If competent people are denied the opportunity by some politicians to contribute to the development of their country, not only will the country under-perform, but it will also not achieve its goals and objectives.
If their views are simply pushed aside, or the output resulting from their advice is largely discarded, or the quality of knowledge they could bring to the development table is ignored and feared by rulers, then it means a vital human resource is not tapped into, and the country suffers as a result.
In the interesting but strange Caribbean political environment, politics as an activity, and politicians as practitioners definitely seem to fear individuals with quality knowledge, skills, and competencies. They do not engage them in conversation, perhaps believing that the false world they have constructed for themselves will be found to be non-existent.
And although some politicians might be well endowed with certain financial resources, and ways of swaying others, there is something about a real education that scares them, and causes them to fear persons with proven competence.
Some politicians will tell competent people that they have high quality learning, but this is followed by the statement, ‘but look who is in charge.’ And they often point to themselves. Position and status matter for such politicians over knowledge.
And the Turks and Caicos? Can some of our politicians be said to fear others who are competent to make the decisions that would bring economic development to the country? Throughout the years, and some say even now, many of our politicians still refuse to engage with knowledgeable people. They seem to fear they will lose their self-confidence, or come over as less than they desire.
Or they may fear some of our competent people will get them to see the world differently, and they will have to jettison what has been false about them. This seems to be the case even with those politicians who themselves are fairly knowledgeable.
Someone said recently that some TCI politicians really go out of the way to avoid certain intelligent people. They are not placed on boards, not given the opportunity to sit on interview panels, and not encouraged to seek posts in areas where they would be helpful to ministries, departments, and statutory bodies.
Even when certain issues of national importance are being aired, it is said that because of the nature of politics, only those seen as the ‘true disciples’ are allowed in the inner circles of politics to give their views, many of which lack wisdom, are uninformed, and lack the in-depth and wide perspective, advice to politicians should have.
If our politicians do not get the kind and quality of advice that befits their office, then we will continue to rock and roll from crisis to crisis, and to commissions of inquiry without end.
Our politicians, for their own good, deserve to benefit from the wisdom, knowledge and intelligence of the country’s best educated professionals, and should seek their counsel often, so that they receive a more objective view of reality, and not views based on the limited knowledge, and self-serving interests of some of us.
Our politicians will then realise that they have nothing to fear from their own competent people, whose only desire is to share in the quest for a better Turks and Caicos.