Openness and transparency

The talent pool in a place as tiny as Guernsey is small.

The island’s population is markedly less than any city in England, roughly equal to that of Ashford in Kent or Tonypandy in Wales. Despite its diminutive size, Guernsey is notable for its autonomy, history marked by exploiting tax loopholes through low taxes, secrecy and for possessing its own legal system which it administers autonomously. The veneer of genteel respectability is paper thin.

If you’re a fellow Guernsey resident and find this portrayal unsettling, it’s worth noting this is how much of the world sees us.

Picture a scenario where a small town gains independence, elevating council members to central government roles and others, often lacking in necessary skills, are assigned significant titles and responsibilities.

The local council, used to convening in places like golf clubs, Rotary meetings, or the Mason’s Arms, now faces the challenge of operating on an international stage.

Although there are principled individuals in politics, they frequently find themselves in the minority. The majority seem to focus more on short-term gains, in-fighting or their own political agendas, rather than the long-term welfare of the island.

Frequent issues include repetitive speeches, poorly thought-out policies, indecision, and a tendency to follow the herd during votes.

If that sounds familiar to you, that is not what I’m here to say. Because the real problem is the civil service. Politicians take the flak as public figures, whilst it is the civil service who are (inappropriately) often responsible for policy, rather than merely enacting it – they are there for good, whilst the politicians are essentially ephemeral.

Troubles with aggrieved members of the public are addressed by such senior civil servants during informal weekly gatherings, often over curry or drinks, where strategies are casually devised to undermine and discredit those voicing dissent.

The town, with similar senior civil servant roles and salaries as the UK, attracts less able candidates due to a limited talent pool. Competence is in short supply; a form of protective syndicate evolves.

If a state employee transgresses to the point where the transgression cannot be concealed, they might retire early, receiving a substantial lump sum, a bonus, and a generous pension, only to reemerge as a highly paid ‘consultant’. Mechanisms evolve not only to block genuine transparency or accountability but also to corrupt review processes themselves. Examples include altering dates, overlooking established terms of reference, and fabricating their own criteria from a complaint to sidestep addressing the original, inexplicable conduct. Documentation that is required by a complainant is withheld or ‘misfiled’. Administrative silence is an option when their backs are to the wall.

Troubles with aggrieved members of the public are addressed by such senior civil servants during informal weekly gatherings, often over curry or drinks, where strategies are casually devised to undermine and discredit those voicing dissent1. If the member of the public can be portrayed as a vexatious litigant or having mental health issues, good. If they can be driven to this, even better. The nature of the process itself often ensures that complainants cannot easily group together, further isolating them. Each complainant believes that they are the only one.

For the cabal of senior civil servants, the strategy is generally not outright lying but rather manipulating or selectively presenting evidence to obscure the truth. Engrossed in this culture for so long, they seem to have lost sight of the distinction between right and wrong2, instead focusing on protecting their salaries and maintaining appearances of adherence to their published code of conduct so as to keep their jobs.

In a system riddled with unethical conduct, civil servants may climb the ranks through complicity in dishonest practices, manipulation of internal politics, and exploitation of organisational systems. Their rise may be aided by cronyism, favouritism, and suppressing potential rivals, leading to senior positions potentially and disproportionately filled with those who have engaged in or ignored dishonesty.

Many find it hard to believe such misconduct exists until they’re directly affected. In small communities, fear of social and professional backlash34 often silences potential whistleblowers. This disbelief, intertwined with the fear of becoming ostracised5, ensures these sub-optimal practices continue unchecked, hidden, unexposed, unresolved, and inadequately reprimanded; all to the detriment of the public.

In this little town, anyone with good professional qualifications and ‘access rights’ is a Prince and power broker. Civil servants are far too easily led by occasional bad actors, who are attracted to politics through greed or ego rather than public duty. The mechanisms of accountability don’t work to stop this.

It is a complacent system. Anyone who rocks the boat is punished. Those who should resign do not. Everyone protects his neighbour ‘cos it’s more than my job’s worth Guv’.

Local media, dependent on the civil service for substantial content, seem hesitant to publish anything that might tarnish their source or the town’s image: why would they bite the hand that feeds them? And if they do, they are promptly brought back into line with a warning. Indeed, the civil service’s ‘comms team’ even determines whether the media have an appetite for a story, and this becomes part of the calculus of settlement.

Of the several politicians I contacted over the last 10 years in Guernsey, not one has been able to oblige the civil service to provide accountability or explanation for officers’ actions which were dishonest or fell far short of the civil service code of conduct6 for the case that I presented. One or two politicians even actively enabled such evasion. This conduct I was citing was not hearsay: it ran from documents to transcripts to affidavits. Moreover, the cost of such maladministration, when extrapolated across other areas of States’ business, must be enormous. It is from this experience of an entrenched system where civil servants are essentially untouchable, shielded from scrutiny and accountability that this website is growing.

If only Guernsey’s Civil Service showed the same efficiency in management as in cover-ups; skilled at protecting staff, it also fails to run the organisation in a way that prevents the need for such cover-ups in the first place. The response is almost invariably to disregard, deflect, or intensify their stance, then, if the complainant persists, to reshape the original complaint to avoid admitting wrongdoing. They conduct self-reviews under these varied terms of reference, and, if under extreme pressure, appoint a compliant ‘external’ reviewer to ensure their initial findings are upheld, making the original complaint irrelevant.

As someone who has experienced significant harm from this system, I believe it is my ethical obligation to raise my voice. For over 10 years, I have sought explanations for dishonest conduct within the civil service, only to face persistent evasion, obfuscation, shifting goalposts and punishment for my determination, resulting in a staggering waste of taxpayer money and my time.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding of the ordinary English language definition of corruption is that it encompasses the abuse of power for personal gain or to deliberately harm others, broadly covering any misuse of authority that violates principles of integrity and fairness.

  1. Solomon Asch – Groupthink and Conformity []
  2. Diane Vaughan – ‘Normalization of deviance []
  3. Fear of Retaliation []
  4. Latané & Darley – Bystander Effect []
  5. Kipling D. Williams – Pain of ostracism []
  6. Guernsey – Civil Service Code pg. 11 []