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FRONT PORCH: Building a more functional democracy

Government-operated schools around the world, including in The Bahamas, tend to require certification and training for teachers from primary to high school. Such training seeks to ensure teachers are better prepared with learning methods to educate young people. Subject area competency is also required.

Many private schools around the world also require certification. Some of the best preparatory schools require master’s degrees in subject areas.

For those private institutions which do not require teacher training, there are mentoring and development programmes, as well as opportunities for ongoing advancement and sabbaticals for further learning.

With education a national priority, the Teachers Training College of New Providence and San Salvador trained scores of teachers in a newly independent Bahamas.

Today’s Faculty of Education at the University of The Bahamas (UB), includes the Department of Early Childhood and Primary Education and the Department of Secondary Education.

In her welcome message on UB’s webpage, chairperson Raquel Barr-Edgecombe notes: “Our programmes include courses in educational psychology, educational research, educational technology, teaching methodology, content areas and field experiences.

“Faculty in Education seek to develop well-rounded teachers who in turn will develop well-rounded students with the capacity to contribute positively to the growth and advancement of the Bahamian society and the larger global community.”

To be appointed a trained teacher in The Bahamas one must have a first class degree and teacher certification. However, individuals can be appointed as assistant teachers with a first class degree and no teacher training. Teachers without certification are paid less.

In most areas of professional life, training, certification and ongoing development are critical for success and service to clients. We would be derelict, irresponsible in sending a completely unprepared teacher into the classroom or an untrained lawyer into the courtroom.

Spiral

Yet, disturbingly, in the downward and dysfunctional spiral in our democracy, we continue to recruit and elect unprepared and incapable individuals to the House of Assembly, many of whom are appointed cabinet ministers, sometimes with terrible outcomes.

We have a multifold problem. While we encourage individuals to pursue careers and vocations in various fields, honing their talents and gaining experience over many years, there is a silly and immature attitude by many that we should quickly change politicians and that experience and longevity in politics are deficits.

Related to this is another ill-conceived notion: Get rid of older politicians and replace them with young people with no experience, just because they are younger. Even in professional sports, a team of older and younger talent may be a recipe for success.

In law, medicine, the corporate world and other fields, the grey hairs or few hairs often typify good judgement and wisdom borne from many years of experience.

A friend insists that if she required neurological surgery she wants a surgeon with some wrinkles who has performed the operation many times over many years, and not the newbie with little to no experience.

In a successful country like Singapore, older and senior ministers help to guide and mentor new ministers so that experience and good practices are passed on from one generation to the next so that institutional knowledge is not lost.

A part of the immaturity of our democracy is that we continue to advance immature ideas, and put in place immature parliamentarians and ministers who know little despite believing they are highly capable because they are adept at posting something supposedly clever on social media.

For political reasons, large, unwieldy cabinets are being appointed. Our cabinets have become too big. Quite a number who serve as cabinet ministers, ministers of state and parliamentary secretaries simply do not have the capacity for such roles.

Further, with many, including many capable women, disinclined to run for elected office, the field of individuals to choose from for frontline politics is limited.

Still, a good number of those chosen by both parties as candidates in general elections have been disastrously poor choices. The decline has been occurring for a number of years. It continues to worsen.

In both the last government and the current administration there are individuals who do not possess most if any of the perquisites required to be capable parliamentarians.

Worse, their capacity to serve as a cabinet minister is next to nil. While some people may grow and are educable, there are others who are untrainable and uneducable in various areas, and who will never be suitable in government.

Seminars and training will make scant to no difference for some, including the incorrigibly ignorant and those unwilling and blind to taking advice, and those convinced of their supposed natural genius.

There is also confusion about the role of a Cabinet Minister and there is need for clarity regarding the status of Ministers of State.

In our parliamentary democracy with cabinet government there are Cabinet Ministers who are answerable to Parliament for the various departments and matters in their portfolios. The Cabinet as a whole is collectively responsible to Parliament.

There are also junior ministers with the designation Minister of State and Parliamentary Secretary. Ministers of State are not Cabinet Ministers although they have been allowed to sit in Cabinet.

A Minister of State serves under a Cabinet Minister and may deal with matters assigned to him or her subject to the general direction and control of the Minister. A Minister of State may be given a descriptive courtesy title by the Prime Minister.

Egotism

There is a story of a former cabinet minister who, upon arrival at a new post, spoke glowingly to public officers about the former’s resume and supposed intellectual abilities. The minister proved highly incompetent and incapable, typically blaming others for failures that were the minister’s. The Dunning–Kruger effect, named for social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, is “a hypothetical cognitive bias.” People with low ability suffer from an “internal illusion [overestimating] their own ability. …

“The miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self. … It is related to the cognitive bias of illusory superiority and comes from people’s inability to recognize their lack of ability.

“People with high ability at a task underestimate their own ability. … The miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others” being more capable.

After majority rule and independence there were many parliamentarians and cabinet ministers who understood our system because they had served for some time and because many of them helped to draft the 1969 and the Independence Constitution.

Procedure

They understood parliamentary procedure, collective responsibility and other essential features of our parliamentary democracy. A number of them, read books and articles on cabinet government and politics around the world.

Today, it is amusing and bewildering to watch new parliamentarians and cabinet ministers, some of whom believe that a blue plate magically endows them with intellectual superiority and automatic policy competence.

Politicians tend to have healthy egos. But there is an egotism among many of today’s politicians that is alarming and curious, with many of them believing they are a Prime Minister-in-waiting.

What one observer has termed “the rarefied atmosphere of the Cabinet Room” supercharges many egos, who strut across the political stage believing God and the Heavens have destined them for greatness. The pomposity of some is as comic as it is frightening.

To help to repair our democracy we desperately need to develop a multilayered and multi-year training programme for parliamentarians and ministers.

We are doing great damage to our system and to the country by constantly unleashing mostly ill-prepared parliamentarians and ministers on the body politic. Repeating this same mistake from government to government is a form of political madness.

When he first won election to office, former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham brought in a regional expert to provide some training in parliamentary procedure for members of his new government. In a subsequent term, he utilized domestic expertise to offer training.

After he became Prime Minister, Perry Christie also held a governmental training session, organized in part by the highly capable the late Lois Symonette, one of the best permanent secretaries of her generation, who after retirement penned a primer on government entitled Understanding Government: With a Bahamian Perspective, which remains an important read.

These and other attempts were all good faith efforts but were insufficient. The Government of The Bahamas should work with the Commonwealth Secretariat and local experts to design a comprehensive training programme for cabinet ministers and new and returning members of parliament and senators.

It may include training and mentoring on how cabinet government works, how the public service runs, what a good cabinet paper looks like, parliamentary procedure, speaking in parliament and other areas. A one or two-day seminar is insufficient.

In the US the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government’s Institute of Politics (IOP) offers a programme for new members of Congress, “designed to help new members forge bipartisan relationships and learn practical skills of lawmaking.”

Last year, in addition to general training, a number of policy areas were covered, including: “COVID-19, rebuilding the economy, America’s role in the world, and the effects of the pandemic and economic recession on educational access, food security, criminal justice, and democratic governance.”

As in the former administration there is bright and capable talent in the new government.

Opportunity

To cultivate this talent and to diminish the damage that will inevitably be done by those suffering from the conceits of power and overestimation of their ability, the Davis administration still has an opportunity to offer training and mentoring for a mostly inexperienced cabinet and parliamentary group.

The realities of power and office are perennial: the need for restraint, the benefits of humility, the effects of the conceits of arrogance and the Icarus effect, the limits of power, the fierce expectations and anger of a public waiting for quick fixes alongside a media environment hungry for pratfalls, error and political warfare.

The best training in politics and government is experience. But if one is forearmed and forewarned through prior study, training and mentoring, the mistakes may be less self-defeating and harmful, and the success may be greater and more lasting.

Comments

BONEFISH 1 year, 2 months ago

The Bahamas has a very flawed democracy. Many persons elected to parliament don't seem to know how the system of government should function. They don't seem to be interested in learning how it does also. Positions should as speaker and senators should not given to first time member of parliament. They are usually given to senior .more experienced persons in other parliaments.

Bahamians don't even understand the role of an MP is. In fact, jobs they attribute to a good mp is done in most countries by the local government. Garbage collection, cleaning of verges, road sides and maintenance of public parks. My sister's congressman is not responsible for that in the US.

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