Public servants: gatekeepers or guides?

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Time for Cayman to “think different”

Thoughts, ideas, insights to focus Cayman’s businesses on continually assessing and even reinventing themselves to compete in our rapidly changing world.

Whatever title you use, our public sector / civil service / “government” appears in many ways to be “broken”, with many feeling there is no real hope of tangible change or, worse, even any recognition of the depth and severity of the problems.

At root level, the core roles of public servants are to:

  • Implement the policies of those we elect to govern;
  • Facilitate the needs of the people and businesses within that framework;
  • Do the above as efficiently, effectively and expeditiously as possible.
  • When we look closely at each role, what do we see all too often instead?
  • Ministers protesting they can’t get public servants to do what they tell them.
  • Rules, regulations, fees increasing, rarely or ever reducing.
  • Ministries, departments, agencies, authorities with an attitude of “no”, or “why should we?” instead of “why not?” or “how can we help?”

In short, too many are focused on being gatekeepers when we need guides too.

To change this requires a fundamental thought shift, but we can’t rely for this on those we have elected. Public servants are our largest voting bloc and history has shown that no politician will genuinely push to drive through necessary changes.

The only solution is for public servants to do this themselves, from senior civil servants to front line staff. They must provide passion, leadership and push for positive change. They themselves must fight from within. Fight the red tape, fight to find ways to say “yes”, and “we can do that”, instead of “no”, or “you’ll have to apply for this new permission/licence/approval”.

Why, though, should they? Simple; public servants do not exist in a vacuum. Businesses are being strangled by red tape, fees and bureaucratic attitudes and rapidly becoming globally uncompetitive. If this continues, the end result will be that businesses will wither and die and there will be no need for most public servants or funds to pay them.

Some may shake their head at the very suggestions I am making, but I believe most public servants recognise that they are, as the name suggests, there to serve the public. If those with passion for service rise to their potential and lead the changes, their job becomes a vocation with meaning, not just the source of a pay cheque.

We all know exemplary examples of public service departments here and around the world; let every public servant say “why not me?”, “why not where I work?”.

It can and is being done. Recently I misplaced my birth certificate. In under 10 minutes I had searched online, then called the General Register Office for Scotland (I’ve lived here many years, but born elsewhere), paid my $20 and was told my replacement copy would be sent first class mail that same day.

This particularly customer-centric government department started allowing the public to pay to search online for family records some 12 years ago, the first ever UK Government department to enter e-commerce. I then found myself interviewing the head of this department, asking how they are able to achieve such world class performance. The first thought he gave?

“We are ABSOLUTELY about public service”, then went on  “I encourage and promote (you can’t enforce it) a customer-centric attitude”, and that they get good staff as word gets around that they do a great job, and “staff can see that an individual can make a difference”.

Here in Cayman, I’ll give two quick examples that are clear to all who have experienced them. First, simple changes by Customs have undoubtedly led to higher duty collections from declarations and also taken pressure off inspecting officers to profile arriving residents. Second, our vehicle licensing department has made huge improvements in customer experience with their new centre.

If I were a public servant, I’d love to work somewhere where I heard more applause than boos, kudos instead of criticism. Sure, criticise where due, but also work with our public servants by celebrating their successes, so to help them create their own solutions and so follow Gandhi’s teaching: “Be the change you wish to see”.


Reinvent or Die by Tom McCallum of McCallum Solutions