In the early 1990s when I entered the civil service of the Virgin Islands, there were some standards and principles that were well known even to junior officers. Little did I know that they were already on the wane. At the time, conflicts of interest were frowned on and often actively discouraged. Should a department or ministry go over its budget or be responsible for some waste of government funds, the department head or the permanent secretary responsible could face being surcharged, so accountability was a thing. There was also a great emphasis on the neutrality of the civil service; the benefits of a civil service that was not aligned to any political party were well understood.
Our version of the Westminster system offers few checks and balances: There is little rein on the exercise of executive power as the executive also forms the legislative. But, back in the 1990s, an upright, honourable, impartial and accountable civil service was seen as serving as a bulwark against malfeasance by the political directorate.
But as time went on, political interference in the civil service intensified. Ministers became more and more prone to involve themselves in civil service appointments at all levels. At the same time, the old guard of the civil service began aging out and the sense of principles and ethics that once permeated the civil service waned as a new generation of civil servants rose or were appointed to senior positions.
The US system
Educated in the United States, where civil service appointments are, at the highest levels, political appointments, some of these civil servants began to think that civil service neutrality was unnecessary and unimportant. The fact that the US system is very different to the Westminster — and that the three branches of US government (executive, judicial and legislative) have been designed to serve as checks on each other and especially on executive power — received little attention. A non-neutral civil service in the Westminster system cannot serve as a check on executive power, nor can it serve as a bulwark against corruption or conflicts of interest. In fact, the opposite happens when civil servants begin aligning themselves with politicians and parties, because what we see instead is a slide throughout all levels of the government into all forms of malfeasance.
Apart from the question of whether the political appointee is qualified for the position to which he or she has been appointed, the senior civil servant who is a political appointee is unlikely, for example, to raise concerns about the untendered awarding of public contracts to political supporters of the same party/politician to which he or she owes his or her position. And, should that contract somehow result in overspending, the politician will protect his appointee from even the thought of being surcharged. And the increase in political appointments meant that appointees were now also more likely to not have risen through the ranks and not be steeped in the civil service culture, defended by the departed old guard. Entering the service at senior levels, they brought with them the partiality that may have been a valued feature of their time in the private sector, but which should have been verboten in the public sector. Some also brought with them ties or even ownership of businesses, which created a conflict of interest upon their entrance into the public sector.
But it could be argued that the senior and junior officials of the VI civil service were not the only ones compromised. The VI was growing in economic wealth in the late 1990s and 2000s, able to offer lavish contracts to external agents and agencies. Past governors — after all, no more than British civil servants — obtained lucrative contracts with the VI government after serving their time in the territory and then retiring out of the British civil service. Nobody saw anything wrong with this. A former high-ranking British civil servant could, after all, be an influential and useful friend to the VI. Nobody questioned whether these appointments were, in fact, a form of co-option. How vocal and insistent would a governor be about good governance if he had an eye on a future contract from the VI? Surely, acting as something of a check on the slide into malfeasance by the persons who could, in the future, determine the grant of your contract would be a career-killing or, at least, income-killing move few, if any, would contemplate?
So, thus, did nepotism, cronyism and outright corruption creep, unobserved — and, to all intents and purposes, unremarked — into the civil service. There is no need for me to enumerate all the instances in the last 10 to 20 years of questionable spending on the part of successive government administrations: They are well known to all. Also well known is the fact that no one — not one politician, not one civil servant — has been held accountable for the vast majority of the questionable spending of public funds which has seen millions lost to the Treasury with little, if any, benefit derived.
Corruption is not something that bursts all at once upon a country. No: It creeps in, little by little, clawing more and more ground from the field of ethics and the basic principles of good governance. Each argument put forward in defence of a questionable contract or appointment signified a fresh loss of ground, but few realised a wholesale retreat was under way.
Recently, some of us were surprised by the arrest of a senior civil servant and by the circumstances surrounding that arrest. The civil servant was not arrested because he allegedly solicited (and received) a bribe. No, he was arrested because he allegedly physically threatened the person who had received a contract with his alleged assistance. And so do we understand that corruption is not a criminal offence. Violence, of course, is. And that is the crux of the problems before us. Corruption in the VI brings no legal or administrative consequences of any kind — not to civil servants and not to politicians. If a bribe is solicited, then, presumably, one pays it. If one is being taken advantage of by a public official or government department, one either sucks it up or hires a lawyer. Lady Justice is not blindfolded: Dollar signs gleam in her eyes.
There is little public comment about any of this in the territory. People realise that no rescue is coming, either locally or from the “Mother Country” and are loath to stick their heads above the parapet. But it was interesting to see that the recent Parliamentary Committee enquiry drew out a few of those who are, indeed, worried about the state of affairs.
Out of the 12 VI entities that made a submission to the Parliamentary Committee, about five or six were made either by the government itself or by individuals or organisations that could reasonably be said to be closely allied with the government of the day. Of the rest, three (interestingly, all written by women) directly addressed themselves to corruption, while a fourth alluded to the poor state of physical infrastructure — an outcome (or one might even say a signifier of) corruption in a wealthy country. So one third of submissions contained some reference to corruption, with one pointing out that the only office with the power to investigate or to order investigations of allegations of corruption is that of the governor. Another submission, made by no less a personage than a former attorney general and minister of government, charged, “There is in an increasing sustained lack of transparency and accountability in key aspects of public life.”
Also noted was “cronyism, favouritism and the regular appointment primarily of known and loyal supporters of the ruling party to various public offices and boards” — as well as the “issue of access to justice especially by ordinary citizens.”
‘Cries from the heart’
Sadly, these submissions, cries from the hearts of people grieved by the lack of good governance, received no attention in the Parliamentary Report that was the outcome of the committee’s enquiry (and, indeed have received little to no attention in the VI). The report, instead, confined itself to discussing issues of same-sex marriage, citizenship, OT funding and the like. There was no mention of the way forward for assuring good governance in the governmental system of a small overseas territory where advocacy for same is limited by the perceived negative consequences of being such an advocate or of being considered a critic of the now all-powerful government on which no check exists.
This is, of course, in stark contrast to the situation in the United Kingdom itself, where not only does the Civil Service Code provide strong guidance on ethics and standards but misconduct in public office is a crime, punishable by a maximum life sentence. In addition, misfeasance and nonfeasance are both offered civil remedies in the court and there are organisations and agencies which act as watchdogs or which offer legal assistance and advice to victims of same. So we can see that, in the UK, a whole array of legislative and other provisions exist to address corruption, conflicts of interest, poor governance, and so on. (None of this means that corruption, malfeasance, and so on are unknown in Britain, but that when instances come to light, accountability is both possible and probable.)
The takeaway from the vast difference between what obtains in the UK and what obtains in the VI and the fact that the UK is silent on these as they relate to the territory is clear. No knight, white or otherwise, is coming to rescue us from the conflicts of interest and other forms of malfeasance that are now rife in both the political administration and in the civil service.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, I’d hoped that we would realise the impact that poor governance has on a territory. Monies have been misspent on questionable projects of limited or no utility to the society at large. Monies that could have been spent over the last three decades on building and maintaining a world-class physical and social infrastructure — which would have offered more resilience to a storm of Irma’s power — were instead, frittered away, disappearing into the maw of poor governance. Our failure to understand the consequences of the decay and to act to stop and reverse it, along with the resounding unconcern from the UK, is a sad predictor of worse to come.