With the three most senior and experienced public servants in the Ministry of Energy due to retire in the next few months, many leaders in Trinidad and Tobago’s energy sector are expressing concerns about a lack of capacity at the Ministry and the likely impact of these changes on key decision making. Permanent Secretaries, Selwyn Lashley and Heidi Wong, and Chief Technical Officer, Richard Jeremie, are all on the verge of retirement from the Ministry.
One senior energy sector industry leader told EnergyNow “we are already finding it very difficult to get responses to many of our requests for approvals from the Ministry but we are very worried that things are going to get even worse when these key officials retire”.
Though an extension of their term was granted by the cabinet, especially for Mr. Lashley and Ms. Wong, according to former Energy Minister, Kevin Ramnarine, it simply gives an extension to the problem.
Ramnarine added that this problem has been long in the making and that the problem with staffing at the Ministry is not only specific to senior officials, it is exacerbated by the fact that many other persons from the Ministry of Energy are leaving in favour of better salaries in the private sector, for example, the MNCs and also the state companies (Petrotrin, NGC).
One of the challenges facing the Ministry is that they simply cannot pay the salaries that would allow them to retain its talent, said Ramnarine. The consequence of this, is that the Ministry loses its best people on a continuous basis. Apart from the salaries, staff at the Ministry leave in favour of better opportunities for growth and expansion.
For the senior staff, when they leave there are people in the Ministry who have the capacity to be Permanent Secretary, but according to Ramnarine, those people may not have the seniority required to be appointed.
In his view, a broader problem exists, since over the next three years the government will face serious deliberations on the energy sector. Such a situation requires all hands on deck and the Ministry needs to be urgently strengthened.
The former minister indicated that he had made recommendations for the professional allowance for the Ministry to be increased. The request was sent to the Chief Personnel Officer (CPO) but the feedback received was negative. Ramnarine pointed out that the Ministry of Energy is financed differently to the rest of the public service. The mechanism for financing the operations of the Ministry of Energy comes from the petroleum impost – which is paid by the MNCs. This means that operations of the Ministry of Energy and an increase to the professional allowance do not come at a burden to the taxpayer. The Ministry is also currently being restructured, according to Ramnarine. In his opinion, the exercise of restructuring which has been going on for many years is a victim of bureaucracy. A restructure in any Ministry needs to first go to the Ministry of Public Administration. They have their own rules and guidelines and it usually takes a long time to bring the process to conclusion.
The concern in the industry mainly focuses on the Ministry losing its most experienced technical staff. The fear is that traditionally, senior public servants in the Ministry of Energy have risen within the Ministry itself, with less movement in and out of the organisation, as happens in other ministries. This was the situation with individuals like Selwyn Lashley, Heidi Wong and even the current Chairman of Petrotrin, Prof. Andrew Jupiter, a former permanent secretary in the Ministry.
The perception in the industry is that senior public servants from other ministries may know the public service rules and regulations, but they lack the technical knowledge and experience needed to run the Ministry of Energy. Ramnarine said that the only possible place where a fairly experienced person may come from, may be the Ministry of Finance, since the work that is conducted is similar when it comes to taxation and licensing etc.
Within the next 12 months, key players in the Ministry will retire and as it is at this moment, there’s no clear plan of succession. This is an area on which the industry is keeping a keen eye. On a more positive note, the Ministry welcomed Mr. Andre Laveau, Foreign Service Officer V, Ministry of Foreign and CARICOM Affairs who assumed duty to act as Deputy Permanent Secretary, with effect from June 24, 2016.