'If Jersey is to survive and prosper in these increasingly dangerous times we need to take some risks'

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By Nigel Hall

The UN Secretary General says that the world is in a ‘sorry state’ because of myriad interlinked challenges, including climate change and Putin’s war over Ukraine that are ‘piling up like cars in a chain reaction crash’.  

Jersey is more prosperous than much of Europe. It also punches above its weight. But like every western democracy, it is struggling to cope with multiple crises. As a small island jurisdiction we have some similar challenges to those faced by our key neighbours, France and the UK, eg a cost-of-living crisis, struggling public – and especially health – services, and a loss of trust and confidence in our democratic polity and system of governance. 

But we also have bespoke small-island problems that include skills shortages that threaten our ability to innovate and create our future prosperity, and an increasing rich-poor chasm that risks upending our cohesive community. Jersey’s OECD democratic health, trust in government, and education Level 6 rankings (bottom and towards the bottom) are awful and should keep the Council of Ministers awake at night. 

Link the global, regional and our island challenges and it is clear that ‘business more or less as usual’ will not cut it. We need our 21st century Le Marquand visionaries, drivers and deliverers of the reinvention changes required. However, it is not clear that we have yet reached the Le Marquand brink stage. Back then, Jersey was recovering from German occupation, a poor economy and outdated or non-existent infrastructure. The ‘heavyweights’, Islanders through and through, united the Island in a ‘whole of Island’ effort that brought Jersey back from the brink and into the competitive world of the late 20th century.

 Akin to the UK, many of today’s biggest problems have been decades in the making – eg the NHS in UK and our health services in Jersey. Others have spanned several governments and years of under-investment – recent serious flooding immediately comes to mind.

If Jersey is to rise to its illustrious history and survive and prosper in these fast-changing and increasingly dangerous times it will – sooner than later – have to go ‘big and bold’, and take some risks. The alternative, just carrying on, risks spluttering decline as we fall behind in the global race that will be dominated by science and innovation and adaptive, agile societies. 

Strip everything else away. What single word defines our root problem? ‘Apathy’ does it for me. As relationship counsellors will attest, the situation is flashing red, not when there is heated argument, but when there is serious indifference. Too many of us are putting self-interest ahead of Island-interest. Only when this reverses, can we face an increasingly dangerous century with the confidence of our past.

Brutal truth analysis reveals that we are among the weakest democracies in the OECD, with the trend line downwards at this last election, and an equally alarming score for trust and confidence in the government system. This represents a self-reinforcing downward spiral.

We may be approaching the brink faster than is imagined. A respected ‘wise owl’ elder Island figure confided to me that if public service trend lines continue on present trajectories they feared that we could get to the stage where hollowed-out Jersey becomes a prime risk to its own economy.

The hopeful message is that it is not correct that all of our decision makers and those who should be engaged citizens are tone deaf, blind and wilfully blind to the brutal truth and realities in the Island and beyond. More of us are seeing the world and Jersey ‘as they really are’ and becoming restless.

The ‘elephant in the room’ message is that we can no longer allow bunker mentality bureaucratic government to struggle on in isolation. The situation is urgent. We are in next to wartime days. We need all – or at least a lot more – hands on deck. No personal criticism implied, but the life experience of our (or any) political and civil servant decision-making body means that they rarely identify all the right questions, let alone the right policies and delivery. 

The new dynamic message is that public servants need to be reminded that they are not the masters. If we are to match 21st century challenges, we need a new dynamic where the public servants convene the best brains available across our Island (and beyond) to present to ministers – our volunteer, elected ‘democracy guardians’ – the best policy and delivery options.

It is no longer safe for key Islanders to abstain from engaging for the collective good. We need a ‘whole of island’ and ‘all talents’ mobilisation to get ahead of multiple challenges, and totally new-order inter-connectivities, inter-dependencies and complexity.

I have long thought that it is an unhealthy sign that our world-class finance sector, which dominates our economy, has produced so few people willing to lend their talents where they are needed. Again, this is not criticism aimed at individuals. It reflects a widespread view that the system is so broken, bureaucratic and slow, that there is no point in volunteering to serve because it will be next to impossible to achieve change.

So let me outline the new dynamic that mobilises the best talents, that will produce better policy and delivery options, and which will generate much greater trust and confidence in the government system.

Let’s take energy policy. Until the French fishermen blockaded our single (critical point of failure) port, and Putin invaded Ukraine, barely anyone questioned the wisdom of getting 98% of our energy generation from France. Now the taxi driver and person on the No 15 bus will tell you that it was a stupefyingly stupid policy decision – unamended, incidentally, by one government after another. Our energy policy design and implementation for years was plain stupid, and dangerous.

So, instead of the same old tight civil servant and Council of Ministers ‘think-engine’ dominating at every stage, let’s get a much superior best in class/best available experts think-engine producing the options for ministers’ final decision making. Busy, successful Islanders will surely step up in this sort of role to the wider good. There could even be healthy competition between the best of the finance sector companies to contribute their smartest talent on the limited time basis required.

Our 21st century Le Marquands are ready and waiting. They are those few in most sectors brimming with ideas, innovation and energy but who will never become full-time political or civil servant public officials.

Might it be that the keys to this almost overwhelmingly complex and dangerous century will be turned when our struggling governing class realise that they must become more conveners and enablers than masters and doers?

  • Nigel Hall is a former British Army Brigadier, policy and strategic adviser in UK delegations at HQ United Nations and HQ NATO, and a founder of the NewBletchley strategic network.

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