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Good advice from the bards

Sunday, February 7, 2016

“… Free up” Dillon “to deal with the programme of operational response and preparing the units to respond in every place in Tobago and Trinidad.”

That could not have been so difficult for Prime Minister Keith Rowley to eventually explain the appointment of Foreign Minister Dennis Moses to the Ministry of National Security. But was it just a response to public pressure? Does Prime Minister Rowley now grasp the vital importance of communication with the national community as central to achieving a quality of governance acceptable to citizens?

It has long been established that in politically democratic societies people have a right to know. This flow of information is not only a means of having citizens informed of government policies and programmes, but fundamentally it is to enhance their capacity to participate in decision-making.

When Information Minister Maxie Cuffie fell back on the anachronistic notion of Prime Minister Keith Rowley having the right to take decisions without having to answer to the population, he, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet opened the door to speculation.

There is something in the decision taken that has a clandestine element to it; the Government does not want to construct a participative democracy; it is arrogant and intends to accrue over time total power onto itself; the Prime Minister thinks the citizens are “foolish”, undeserving of having the right to know of their own business; and when the Cabinet through its Information Minister does so within five months of coming to office, there must be deep concerns about its democratic bona fides and intentions.

But there is another important possibility: the Prime Minister is not sufficiently self-assured of his decision-making and therefore wants to hide his rationale for appointing Foreign Affairs Minister Dennis Moses to be the Minister in the Ministry of National Security.

The really confusing thing about the initial refusal of the Prime Minister, his Cabinet and Information Minister to offer a rational explanation for the appointment of the Foreign Minister to assist the Minister of National Security is that when something of a rationale came from Minister Edmund Dillon, it was logical and made quite good sense in a world of international crime, and with T&T holding the portfolio for crime within Caricom. Therefore, having the Foreign Minister involved in national security issues, which have significant international relations connections, is almost natural.

So why was there the element of secrecy attached to this decision if not for one or more of the above reasons?

Not too incidentally, it was not the first time that the Government failed to inform the population in a proactive manner on a vital matter of governance. When then Central Bank Governor, Jwala Rambarran was fired, the information was first conveyed through a leak to the newspapers. It was then confirmed in an off-handed interview by the Finance Minister with one radio station.

This non-understanding of the need for proactive communication with the citizens runs very deep. As succeeding cabinets have found out, hiring "communications specialists" two and three per ministry and having a journalist in the Cabinet as the main purveyor of information on governmental activities do not amount to a communications policy that is structured into the process of governance.

Early in the life of the previous government when it invited several people to talk to it on matters such as the functioning of the public service, the legal system and its operations etc, I was requested by the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information to speak to the government team about communications.

The attitudes in the room varied. There were those who may have thought it a humbug; one senior minister wanted me to forgo an analysis of the history of governments getting into office through extensive and well-thought-out communications programmes, but failing thereafter in the absence of a communications plan. He wanted me to deliver something of a quick fix on how to razzle-dazzle the population with propaganda.

Another minister thought my presence there was a good opportunity to attack media and journalists about their collective and individual bias against parties and individuals other than the PNM; others must have thought it unproductive to listen to some mere journalist talk about the importance of public communications to achieve quality governance.

But there were a few who found the session worthwhile. One such minister (a thinker) said at the end of the session, to my suggestion of understanding communications and its importance to governance and the need for a communications plan, that each ministry should have a sub-plan which fits into the overall communications master plan.

Of course, nothing so sophisticated and sensible was attempted. Instead, the communications of the People’s Partnership government was an unmitigated disaster: the messages were conflict laden; the communications conveyed ethnic and tribal cleavages; antagonisms one minister against the other (amongst the parties too) prevailed. What was surely communicated was the deceptive nature of the governance exercise as attempted.

But more than that, the poor communications programme was merely reflective of the internal state of governance and what the party offered. And the point here is that a public communications programme of a government is merely reflective of what happens inside.

"Learn by other men’s faults; wise men correct their own," Heather McIntosh. 

"Do everything opposite to Kamila, and yuh go be a good Prime Minister," Cro Cro. Good advice from the bards.


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