By Alicia Wallace
We have a systems problem. Systems are not just machines or procedures for high-level tasks, but include the timing of traffic lights, the passport renewal application process and the dissemination of information.
There are systems we need that do not exist, systems we do not understand so we cannot use them well, systems that are outdated, systems that do not work well, and systems that have been manipulated to create distance between us and the information, resources, and services we need. They are often built in response to a human need, but in ways that privilege people in positions of power, or to support other systems that do — or seem to do — the same work. They are in the thousands and intersect each other in various ways, some of which create greater complications and limited accessibility.
Any quarterly “Meet Dr Minnis” in the past 18 months?
One week after the prime minister entered office, he appointed a press secretary to be the official spokesperson of the prime minister and the FNM-led administration. Two weeks later, Press Secretary Anthony Newbold announced the media would have the opportunity to pose questions to the prime minister on a quarterly basis.
At the time of the announcement, Newbold was asked for clarification on Minnis’ willingness to engage the media otherwise, and the response was that he has the right to decide when he will talk to members of the media. To date, the prime minister has yet to hold a quarterly press conference.
Last week, Newbold reiterated that Minnis will decide when he will hold such a press conference, regardless of the suggestions made to him. He added that press conferences take place wherever Minnis goes, though he did not mention the prime minister’s dismissiveness or outright refusal to answer questions on a regular basis.
Here we have an example of a system. Was it designed to limit the prime minister’s engagement with the press, or to ensure the press has at least four opportunities every year to ask questions about pertinent issues, whether topical or not? We do not know. Minnis has treated the press with tremendous hostility over the past 18 months, often behaving in ways not much different from the current US president. Whatever the purpose of the — up to now — imaginary system, it remains unused, and without the promise of use.
What do we do with a system like this — an empty promise we cannot even ask about with the expectation of a response of any substance, much less truth?
What does it mean that the prime minister made a commitment without our prompting and now will not even respond to questions about his failure to keep it? If it matters to us and we want the press to pose questions, we have to be willing to do something about it. Watching and laughing at video of the prime minister’s aide swiping reporters’ microphones does not demonstrate support of the press or recognition of the power it affords us.
We depend on the media to ask questions on our behalf, keep track of issues and positions, track down key actors and experts, conduct research, be at every important event, report back, and do all of this at the same time, at all times.
What happens when access is not granted? How do we get information when the people in the room are told not to speak of what takes place there? Systems of secrecy and forced loyalty — read by many institutions and individuals as positive — quickly become tools of oppression when the privileged few agree to separate themselves from the “outsiders” who do not have immediate access to information. We, all of us “outsiders,” would know far less if not for media reports, from proceedings in Parliament to interviews with the insiders who break rank.
Lives at stake
Over the past years, there have been several instances about missing people as a result of accidents in the ocean. The circumstances are unique, but many of them share one commonality. Family members and friends do not believe the authorities did everything possible to find and save their loved ones. Many of us have, at some point, seen calls for help from the general public in searching the water for vessels and people because those dispatched by the authorities are too few. Families have also complained about the poor communication by authorities who often do not speak directly to them, but give statements to the media.
As the search continues for a missing pilot, we are not short on questions about how we got to this place, widening the scope of the search for an aircraft that was in sight a few nights ago.
The family contends the pilot was experienced and competent and would have taken every measure to land safely. They say he recognized a problem with the aircraft, contacted Air Traffic Control as well as a friend who could track him and passed three Family Island airports where he could not land because there were no lights. They also said there were no divers in the RBDP team that first responded. The family also criticised the decision to call off the search within hours of starting and no measures being taken to secure the aircraft. In response to these accounts, there has been a slew of comments from people with a range of opinion on the way the pilot’s crisis and the ongoing search have been handled. At the root of it, of course, is the system.
What procedures are in place for situations like this? Who determines whether or not the lights at an airport are turned on? How can rescuers be dispatched ahead of an emergency landing? Who is supposed to be on the first responder team? Under what circumstances can a search be called off? There are more questions than answers, and while the Minister of National Security defended the the operations, no explanation was given. There is no understanding of the system. Not knowing the procedures keeps us from comparing them to those in other countries, finding the weaknesses, and making recommendations that could save lives.
Systems are all around us, whether or not we recognise them as such. They control environments, impact interactions, and determine outcomes. We often confuse people with the systems within which they operate.
The journalist is criticised for not reporting on what we need to know, but they do not have access to the information either and probably need our agitation to shake the system enough to make progress on a story.
The diver is criticised for not going in the water, but they are governed by a system they do not control, and can only respond to commands from the appropriate officer.
We spend too much time criticising individuals, and not nearly enough time interrogating the systems that monitor, control and, to some extent, create those individuals within their roles. It is necessary to look at the systems around us, including the ones we think bring benefit, and ask ourselves — and each other — if they really work. If not, we must dismantle, reimagine and build. Dismantle, reimagine, and build. And we must do this recognising that it is part of ongoing collective assessment and co-creation of the environment we inhabit that is necessary for the transformation we want and will not get until our focus shifts from the individual.