From Palisi to party headquarters: neutral public service?

It is good to see the Public Service Commission laying down the law on how Samoa’s public servants and Government employees should conduct themselves on social media with the electoral process yet to be concluded. 

Popular platforms such as Facebook have descended into a fiery battleground in the weeks leading up to the 2021 General Election last Friday, and the releasing of the preliminary results by the Office of the Electoral Commission after polling added a new twist to the online conversation.

However, the P.S.C. Chairman Aiono Mose Sua issued a circular on Wednesday to all Chief Executive Officers and heads of Government Ministries and offices, expressing the need for all Government employees to remain neutral when expressing their views.

“We wish to remind all public servants and employees of the Government of Samoa to take reasonable care when expressing their views on social media that may undermine the political neutrality of the public service or bring the reputation of the public service into disrepute,” stated the circular issued by Aiono.

But did the warning from the P.S.C. Chairman amid the counting and finalisation of the electoral ballots by the O.E.C. staff come a little too late?

Ironically, on the same day the P.S.C. Chairman issued the circular, staff from the Ministry of Education Sports and Culture, National University of Samoa and Samoa Qualifications Authority held a joint church service (lotu) at Human Rights Protection Party’s ‘Maota i Petesa’ headquarters in Sogi on Wednesday evening.

Pictures of the church service were uploaded to the M.E.S.C. official Facebook page on Thursday morning and showed M.E.S.C., N.U.S. and S.Q.A. staff in attendance, including the M.E.S.C. and S.Q.A. Chief Executive Officers Afamasaga Dr Karoline Fuatai and Lealiifano Easter Manila Silipa as well as the N.U.S. Vice Chancellor Aiono Professor Alec Ekeroma.

It is publicly known over the years that all Government Ministries held their church services at the Government Prayer House at Palisi so the decision by these three Government entities to move their event to the Maota i Petesa at Sogi ridicules and makes a mockery of the P.S.C. Chairman’s circular.

How do you expect public servants to remain neutral when a Government Ministry or authority – as your direct employer – is convening an official programme at the headquarters of a political party?

It was wrong for the M.E.S.C., the N.U.S. and the S.Q.A. to hold their joint church service at the Maota i Petesa, especially with the country still in limbo on which party will form the new Government, as the O.E.C. continues its final count of the electoral ballots before releasing the official results.

Sticking to tradition in the Samoan public service by holding the joint church service at the Government Prayer House at Palisi would avoid any lingering questions over the loyalty of the public servants.

Or couldn’t these Government entities hold their prayer service at other public venues such as the N.U.S. Fale Samoa or even a church hall?

This oversight by the three Government entities raises questions over whether the P.S.C. should have publicly released guidelines months before the 2021 General Election highlighting the parameters on how public servants should conduct themselves prior to, during and after a general election?

We say this having also come across instances of public servants’ conduct that could call into question their commitment to being apolitical during an election, such as going to work wearing shirts with party logos or generally promoting party merchandise.

With social media becoming increasingly prominent in this year’s general election, it would be cognisant for the P.S.C. to draw up permanent guidelines on social media use for all Government employees during an election. 

From our standpoint, public servants shouldn’t find themselves in a dilemma on where their loyalty lies at such a critical juncture of Samoa’s history, as their substantive positions in Government as “public servants” denotes that they are loyal and accountable to the people and not a political party or parties.

And with the electoral process still on foot with the O.E.C. finalising the final count of the ballots from the 2021 General Election, our public servants have a responsibility to maintain the integrity of our democratic institutions by being impartial and being publicly seen to be neutral as we await the outcome of the final vote count.

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