Political Responsibility vs Public Service Accountability

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 Elected Politicians, are men and women who go to the citizenry in general elections seeking firstly, nomination, and then secondly, election as Members of Parliament. We love them and we hate them. They foist themselves unto us.  They go out of their way to seek us out, to court us and to seek our votes. They spend small fortunes in wooing us.  If elected, they get the power to pass laws to run and or manage our lives.  The fortunate ones become Ministers in the Executive. In that other branch of Government, whenever something goes wrong in their portfolios, we hold them to account. They are accountable whether or not they committed the wrong. That after all is political responsibility. The equation is quite simple and basic. The politician who seeks us out, who secures our vote is responsible for whatever goes wrong in his portfolio under his watch. And not to be outdone, we get a chance to fire the politician at a minimum every five years and sometimes even earlier.

The career public servant is faceless and nameless. He wields the power in the ministry or department under his management. He executes policy. He runs or manages our lives.  He cannot be easily fired. In practical terms he is not accountable to the citizenry.

The stupor of a very hot hazy summer afternoon set me thinking about the unfortunate allegations surrounding the five fishermen.  The only confirmed facts to date are as follows:

  • The US Coast Guard saw five fishermen in international waters.
  • The US Coast Guard thought that the men were engaged in international drug running.
  • The US Coast Guard sought the permission of the Jamaican authorities to assume jurisdiction over the boat and the five fishermen.
  • The Jamaican authorities gave the US authorities the jurisdiction over the five fishermen and the boat.
  • The US Coast Guard then took the five into their custody.

At this stage, everything else is an unproved allegation.

As I understand it, the process of obtaining the waiver of jurisdiction is as follows: The United States Government (USGov) though it’s Embassy in Kingston contacts the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade (MFAFT) with a formal request for the waiver of jurisdiction. After the request is processed by the staff of the MFAFT it is sent to the Ministry of National Security (MNS). There it is processed by the staff, the statutory checks are made, and advice is given by the permanent public service officers in the MNS to the Minister (The Competent Authority) who then decides whether or not to grant the waiver of jurisdiction. The Attorney General is also required to give her advice pursuant to Section 20 (5) of the Act.

In all of this there is a battalion of public servants who were intimately aware of all of the details surrounding the detention of the fishermen and their identities and the request by the US Government  for the waiver of jurisdiction.

It is the responsibility of the staff of the MFAFT to see to the overall welfare of Jamaicans overseas, particularly those in contact with the Law. Her Majesty’s Government has a list of lawyers in Jamaica who are from time to time asked to attend on UK nationals in contact with the law in Jamaica. Does the Jamaican government do likewise in the USA?

A few simple questions.  Who granted the waiver of Jurisdiction to the US? The answer is the Minister of National Security. Who was aware of the details surrounding the matter? The answer is the relevant permanent staffers in MFAFT & MNS. Who had a duty of care to follow up on the matter in the interest of the Jamaican fishermen in the custody of the US authorities?  The answer is the permanent staffers of the MFAFT.

Ministers of Government accept that the political responsibility for everything that goes wrong in their Ministries or departments belongs to them.  They asked for the responsibility of the office and they obtained the office along with its burdens and benefits. But is anyone to be held accountable for the day to day mal-functioning of the staff of the ministries? Will there be public service accountability?

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