'Fix the roof while the sun shines? Jersey’s government has yet to recognise that it even has a leak'

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By Richard Digard

LEAF through even a couple of weeks’ headlines from this newspaper and you’ll quickly realise what an extraordinary place Jersey is. Rescues at sea, waste disposal problems, dancing restrictions clobbering clubs, drug seizures, civil service reform, toxic chemicals potentially stopping homes from being built and being on target to legalise assisted dying in just two years. 

You’ll gather from this list that I mean extraordinary in the sense of unusual rather than strange – that odd mix of parochial to insular to, in the case of authorising suicide, frankly global. Why not go the whole hog and legalise class A drugs such as heroin and crystal meth if you like attracting attention?

And it’s this effortless shift between parish pump and truly international politics like managing Brexit and the consequences of being an unpopular offshore finance centre that places what’s probably a unique set of responsibilities on States Members. 

In turn, this requires pretty advanced skill sets from the officials who advise them. As we’ve seen from the fallout from the Dominic Raab ‘bullying’ allegations, they also sometimes need to be able to deal with unrealistic or unreasonable ministers. 

I had a generally positive – albeit offline – response to my last column in which I suggested that Chief Minister Kristina Moore was making a bit of a hash of the resignation of Suzanne Wylie as chief executive of the States of Jersey.

Fair play, said one correspondent. But you have to recognise the key difference between bureaucrats and ministers. ‘In general, the civil service is a meritocracy and most of the people in the senior positions are there because they are qualified to do the job. By contrast, ministers are chosen from a very small pool and for a variety of reasons which does not include that they are the best person for the job,’ they said. 

Well, yes. This issue of getting the right people in office consumes people in both Channel Islands and neither jurisdiction thinks it has it right – Guernsey in particular is going through intense soul-searching in the light of permitting island-wide voting and what appears to be a parliamentary majority emerging by stealth.

As it has also been put to me, ‘[being a States Member] is a deeply unrewarding role for people of ability as opposed to a very rewarding role for people with no ability. Jersey’s Council of Ministers includes five people new to the States Assembly and at least half its members are not competent…’

I’m not close enough to say whether that’s a harsh or accurate judgment, but it has come from someone who, in my view, is very well placed to reach such a conclusion and would probably receive plaudits were they able to say so in public.

So far, so unsurprising you may say. What to do about it, though? That’s the issue. Or, in Jersey’s case, three issues. The first is how you pull together a disparate bunch of people, all with highly developed egos, sufficiently to Get Things Done (that’s obviously roughly the right things and in approximately the right order).

As one of Guernsey’s better, but sadly now retired, politicians, Allister Langlois, said in Representing the People – a guide for People’s Deputies:

‘Each Member of the States Assembly brings unique combinations of skills and experience to their job as a democratically elected representative of the people. Combining those different backgrounds in a way that makes government and the legislature efficient and effective is a significant challenge. That challenge can be made easier if Members have a more shared view of how the system operates and the behaviours which lead most effectively to consensus whilst accommodating a wide range of political views.’

This has relevance for Jersey too, despite your ministerial system and slightly better developed sense of political ‘parties’. Strong-arming decisions through is all very well, but genuine consensus is far stronger. It’s a bit old hat in today’s cult-of-self world, but teams do better. Period. 

In turn, that means the second issue is the relationship between ministers and officials, as has been highlighted in the UK and here over the still unexplained departure of the chief executive. In a word, what’s been missing is trust. Ministers must trust officials to give them good quality advice and to implement agreed policies. But equally, officials need to trust ministers not to ask them to do the impossible or to blame them when it is not done. 

While ministers and officials should be a team and not two opposing factions, the departure of Mrs Wylie suggests that relationship has a fair way to go before you can claim to have a government that’s fit for purpose and sufficiently reactive in the 21st century. And since we’re already hearing whispers that some ministers want to revert to a position whereby departmental heads report directly to them, rather than to the chief executive, I suspect that even drawing up a brief for a new chief executive will be difficult.

The third factor at play is Jersey’s abysmal election turnout figures – not just one of the lowest in the world, according to the Policy Centre Jersey think tank founded by Sir Mark Boleat – but low registrations meant that only 31% of those eligible to vote actually did so at the last election. 

Look at the demographics and the picture is even bleaker. In broad terms, older, wealthier home-owners tend to vote and younger, less-well-off folk don’t. The sense of alienation and disempowerment in the Policy Centre’s analysis is palpable – and, to a cynical extent, understandable.

If your brand of politics appeals to crusty old Islanders with a few bob, where’s the benefit in encouraging younger, non-locally-born voters unable to buy a house or afford the rent to turn out? Changing this, then, is optional. A sort of academic exercise if you’re happy to turn a blind eye to the inherent unfairness of it all.

Well, perhaps not for much longer. It’s OK when Jersey’s performing adequately, the budget balances and it’s only the usual suspects, who never go to the ballot box, who are beefing about the cost of living and the (purely fictional, obvs) Jersey Way. 

Cast your mind back to the crash of 2008 and unemployment rates here of 2,570 in March 2011 and social cohesion becomes a bit more than a nice-to-have. Hopefully, we’re a way from that, despite the latest banking turmoil, but MONEYVAL, the evaluation of anti-money laundering measures in Jersey and how it combats the financing of terrorism, looms.

My point is that it’s better to fix the roof while the sun’s shining, but Jersey’s government has yet to recognise it has a leak.

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