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Civil service versus the can-do culture: a governor’s view

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In the third extract of an address to the Friends of St Helena, former governor Andrew Gurr reflects on the island’s emerging private sector, optimism and – just briefly – education. Read part one of his recollections here, and find part two here.

On the private sector

You have the private-versus-public tension, which is always there: the cry from the private sector, “Why is the public sector doing this? Why can’t we do it?”

But what happens? Classic – we saw it with dustbin men on the Falklands, we saw it with quarries on St Helena. You privatise something and immediately they exploit their fellow islanders by putting the price up.

It’s one way, I would agree, of getting rid of inefficiency in the public sector, by putting it in the private sector, but it can be quite damaging. You have to be very careful in a small island that you don’t get monopolies that become exploitative of their fellow islanders.

On no-can-do attitudes

There’s also the civil service attitude against the private sector attitude. Having worked probably an equal time in both sectors, I’m well aware of this:  the civil service no-can-do, or “I will obey the rules and follow the system” attitude against the private sector, “Yes I will do it come hell or high water,” and those two attitudes are very different and they exist even on a small island.

“There’s also the pessimism against optimism tension.  Many local people are very good at being pessimistic: “It won’t work.” “Why not?” “Because we did it before and it didn’t work.” “And why not?”  “I don’t know – we never knew.” “It might work this time.” “Oh no, what a waste of time and money.”

That was so common. What about the space race? We would never have got into space if people hadn’t put up with failure amd gone and improved on it.

“Something gets condemned right at the beginning and you get the optimists who keep on  ploughing ahead and wasting money that is never going to work.

On transparency

There is also tension between freedom of information and the proper management of that information. If everybody  is going to know everything  about everything, which is the cry over here as well, that can be very difficult in some situations, and on a small island it’s even more difficult, because everybody knows everybody and everybody’s children are known by everybody else’s children.

That lack of anonymity is one of the biggest differences between St Helena and this country. You drop a clanger here and you go to the next village and nobody knows you dropped a clanger.

But you drop a clanger on St Helena and what do you do? Escape to the UK.

On the health service

Another big problem area – the health sector. The lack of medevac – how do you get off the island if you are really ill and the ship’s just left?

Generalists are very hard to get. The whole of the health sector specialises these days: general surgeons – how do you find them.

Some sophisticated medical equipment needs regular servicing. Is a man going to come at regular intervals. or do we train up somebody to do it? And if you train up someone good they have nothing to do for two thirds of the year. It’s very difficult to make that work.

The Falkands have any number of beds here in the NHS. St Helena has two a year.

I think expectations of the island are far too high. One has to look at where the island has come from over the last two years rather than look at the UK and try and catch up with it.

I think there is also sometimes on the island a good old-fashioned service level which doesn’t exist here [in the UK]. There are big advantages there as well as disasadvantages.

On education

The education sector: girls’ academic ability and development and their exam results are far better than the boys’. There seems to be a culture among the boys that they would much rather go to Ascension and become a fireman than learn something slightly more academic – without criticising firemen.

On farming and food

The boys don’t want to go out in the fields and work, so there are all those lovely fields out at Longwood that haven’t been used for years that could be, for arable or for farm animals.

And of course you’ve got the problem of the RMS and the fact that it’s heavily subsidised, so it’s cheap to import food on the RMS rather than make it yourself.

People say, “Yes, but look how we used to provide food for ships that called.”

Apparently, if you look in the archives it’s full of complaints from ship’s captains and pursers about the high cost of what the Saints were actually selling them. If we could get the equivalent money from ships today, then farming would probably pick up again.

On the RMS St Helena

There are so many interests conflicing on the route of the RMS. How do you handle that? Very difficult. You have workshops with peo0ple and try to make decisions to get the route optimal, but you have to have it either side of Christmas going back and forwards.

Do you bring back Namibia into the cycle or not? There are advantages of doing so and disadvantages of doing so. The price of beer goes up because all the cheapest beer comes from Namibia and what do you do about that? It very important to a lot of people.

It is hoped that part 4 of Andrew Gurr’s thoughts on St Helena will appear on this website over the weekend – breaking news stories permitting.

The inside story on St Helena, by former governor Andrew Gurr
Experts, expats and what England expects: a governor’s view, part 2

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