It is a question about the way we want our elected representatives to tackle the issues and opportunities that in some way affect each and every one of us on St Helena.
The issue of how to govern ourselves has recently moved up the agenda. Many will recall the Island has toyed with governance reform a couple of times before but they came to nothing. Since I arrived, I have heard numerous views, publicly and privately, on the weaknesses in our system of government. Councillors, businesses, administrators, community leaders and many of the people I meet in the streets have told me the present approach of committees, working groups, LegCo and ExCo all involved in trying to sort out policies and laws is confusing and too often tediously slow.
Above all, the present system of government means no one within the body of elected councillors is explicitly accountable for the performance of any part of government. Likewise, the public service, ambiguously called the St Helena Government, does not work directly for any particular councillor but instead tries to address queries and demands made by different elected representatives.
The result, in spite of the best efforts of dedicated councillors and public servants, leads to a less-than-ideal, some have said disjointed, way of making decisions and operating the public services. Consequently, I observe a widely held realisation that as an Island firmly looking to the future we perhaps should not go on the way we have in the past.
In the Constitution, as Governor I am responsible for good governance on St Helena. It is a concept I am sure we can all support. But, what is it? One handy definition is: ‘the effective and responsible management of [a territory] which includes considering society’s needs in the decisions it makes.’ Aptly, government should seek to govern in a way that is accountable, decisive and understanding, though being good at governing means making some decisions that will not be popular.
So, in thinking about transitioning to a new system we should look at how we can increase personal accountability and authority amongst councillors and enable the SHG administration to work more directly with them. After approving with LegCo in late May, I sought help from DFID and they have agreed to start a process involving councillors, public and organisations across the Island to seek views on if, and what, type of political and governance reforms we want at the heart of our government. If it is more accountability, how best to satisfy your expectations on what you want to see? If it is faster decision-making, what do you want to see streamlined and improved? If it is greater clarity about who is responsible for what amongst the various parts of government, what are your preferences?
Dr Jeremy Sarkin will come to St Helena on 21 September for his first visit to facilitate a debate and gather your ideas on the present Committee-based system. He will not be setting out any specific method of governance. What he will do is explore with us our understanding and appetite for alternative systems, e.g. ministerial, executive councillors, redefine LegCo and ExCo, Chief Islander, restructuring SHG directorates to have clearer political leadership, or just about any other possibility Dr Sarkin can raise from his long experience around the world. It will then be for St Helena to decide if a change in governance arrangement will be for the better, probably via a referendum and an amendment to the Constitution.
Let’s set aside likes and dislikes, nostalgia and doubt. This is an opportunity to decide if we want to move beyond our present structure. To reshape an accountable system of governance. I sincerely hope everyone, media, communities, business organisations, youth groups, student council and all those who attend future public meetings, take part in defining the best option for your future. Anything is do-able if we want it.
An opportunity is being arranged for the public to meet Dr Sarkin on Wednesday, 25 September, at 6pm at the Harford Community Centre. Other meetings are being planned in October. Ideas and suggestions are also welcome in writing and can be sent to the Governor’s Office via email: William.Spooner@fco.gov.uk.
Governor Dr Philip Rushbrook
18 September 2019