Ever since political Independence, politicians in the Bahamas have used sweet-sounding words to convince the Bahamian people that their leadership either had produced significant benefit or would if they were hired. For the most part, those words have had little meaning in fact, as the politicians have not been as concerned about creating the conditions necessary for the words to actually have meaning, as part of their political agendas. In a recent such grand, self-serving public statement, the Leader of the Opposition committed to the development of a “Meritocracy”,  having heard the cries of the youth of the nation for a world in which promotion is based upon merit. The reality is that neither he nor the Government is committed to the creation of the conditions required for a meritocracy to exist. He is again just using another sweet-sounding word designed to suggest that “we” will deliver something “they” will not.

I certainly support the development of a Meritocracy. But for one to exist there must be at least two underlying conditions: the institutionalized measurement of excellence and the celebration and rewarding of it as a matter of course. As a society, we in the Bahamas believe in neither.

First, there is the question of measurement. To measure excellence, there must be a standard against which to compare. As a country, we accept those standards forced on us (mostly by people we want to borrow money from) by the outside world. We have no commitment, however, to standards of performance where we are not compelled to do so. There is no standard of performance for the behavior of public servants, no standard of presentation for the built environment (again, except where Tourism demands it), no standards of production in the workplace. In fact, we are more concerned to establish the right NOT to have a standard of performance in most instances. While we know that academic degrees do not determine excellent performance, our whole public service is built, not around excellent performance, but academic qualification and longevity. Unions, the most potent of our local institutions, are designed, not to assure excellence, but security. A complaint about poor service is not met with a measurement against excellent service, but a commitment to the worker’s right to serve.

The truth is that there is no commitment to an excellent Bahamas.

Nor is there a commitment to a reward system based upon excellence. Mr. Minnis is right when he complains that party affiliation, family ties and the ability to “pay your way” are the important factors in advancement in our community, especially in public affairs. But he is wrong to think he can change that. To do it differently, he must first change the very institution within which he functions. Politicians are not chosen on the basis of merit, but on the same bases noted above – party affiliation and the ability to “pay their way”. Advancement in the political arena is not based upon excellence in performance, but on public relations and skill at inner-party politics. A Minister who may have demonstrated excellence while in office must, of necessity, be erased from the memories of the public when the Government changes, and his policies changed. Otherwise his successor is seen as “weak”. That is the game. It is more important than excellence.

In other words, the institution within which the present politicians function is incapable of defining excellence in its own house, or to reward it publicly. Any promise to create a society that achieves these things is therefore hollow.

A Meritocracy assumes the rewarding of excellence in public affairs. That reward system must first, however, be institutionalized, not dependent on the political agenda of the present government. The individual who expresses excellence in their field must be raised up and celebrated as an example, regardless of their political or social background. Performance must be the criteria. It must be defined by example and publicly rewarded. Otherwise the word Meritocracy has no meaning.

This is not to suggest that we have not held up and rewarded excellence. We have. Generally, however, it has not been as a matter of our own judgment. We have accepted the judgment of the wider world that Bahamians are exceptional and added our accolades, especially in the sports arena. Even there, we have been slower to accept that global judgment in music and the movies. But we have accepted it. We have not, however, looked into the mirror and seen ourselves for ourselves (I speak about why elsewhere), and determined what is excellence for us. Who is our best Classical dancer? Our Poet Laureate? The best Restauranreur? The best carpenter or millwright? The best architect or engineer? The best-kept settlement or town? How do we know? Forming Tourism Committees is not enough (although it is an important part of the system). Before promising a society in which merit is rewarded, we must first have a society that recognizes merit at an institutional level, and makes reward a public matter. So far, we have neither.

Finally, there are a few other sweet-sounding words we have used to fool ourselves that must be a part of this conversation. The first is the word “National”.

Since 1973, we have created (i.e. named) any number of “National” institutions. Few of the have any real currency, because they have lacked the same commitment to the conditions necessary for their existence. We have created a National Dance School, a National Dance Company, a National Youth Choir, a National Children’s Choir, a National Orchestra. In the 40 years of our Independence, we have yet to commit to the creation of ANY facilities for the development or expression of these artistic areas – no National Theatre, no National Concert Hall, no School for the Performing Arts. The National Center for the Performing Arts is a renovated cinema. Is that an expression of value for merit? I think not!

The second word is “Accountable”.

Under the Constitution, politicians, whether in Government or Opposition, are not accountable to the people of the Bahamas. They may stand before us and declare their commitment to accountability, but that declaration is not enshrined in the Constitution. To be accountable, there must be consequence for poor performance. The most basic consequence must be that employment can be terminated by the employer if performance is below what is expected. The Bahamian people are the employer, but there is no provision in the Constitution for them to terminate the employment of a Member of Parliament, regardless of their performance. I would have thought recall would have been a no-brainer in the recent discussions about the Constitution. I hope it is the first of the amendments. In the meantime, regardless of their intentions, no politician can say he or she is “accountable” to the Bahamian people.

Until there is a commitment to the underlying conditions that allow these sweet-sounding words politicians use to seduce us to exist, as “infrastructure”, any talk about a “Meritocracy” is meaningless.

October 12, 2013