The infamous directive

Clearly it does not make sense that public sector employees who want to take part in local council elections are penalised in such a manner

This week Alternattiva Demokratika publicly announced that they were seriously considering withdrawing all their candidates from the local council elections due to the implications of a directive issued by the Office of the Principal Permanent Secretary.

This directive, entitled Political Participation and Communications with the Media, was issued in February 2011 and it applies to all public sector employees, including employees of government agencies and entities.

In its statement AD explained that this directive made it obligatory for all prospective election candidates working in the public sector to take 15 days' leave if they are to contest local council elections - a major burden if one considers that the normal leave allocation is 24 days per annum.

My initial reaction when I read the news was that there had to be some misunderstanding. Clearly it does not make sense that public sector employees who want to take part in local council elections are penalised in such a manner. I can understand that candidates need to go knock on doors and take part in activities in their locality, but this is work that can be done in the evenings and need not impinge on office hours.

So I decided to check this directive for myself. Clause 4.1 states the following:

"Public Officers occupying posts that are "politically free" can apply for unpaid leave for political activity. In the case of electioneering for: 

(a) The National Parliament, as from the first working day following the proclamation of the relative writ; 

(b) the Local Councils, as from the first working day following the date the election is officially announced; and 

(c) the European Parliament as from the first working day of the calendar year during which the election is to be held;

so however that in each of the three cases, the prospective candidate has no option but to avail himself/herself of unpaid electoral leave for an uninterrupted period of at least 15 working days, of which at least two working days shall be the days prior to polling day and two other working days following the announcement of the election results."

There you go. Based on this directive, public sector employees who are candidates in local council elections would have to take 15 days leave whether they need it or not. In fact the wording actually seems to imply that the candidates cannot even use their vacation leave entitlement but must take the days off without pay. Giving up three weeks' pay is no joke, particularly in the current economic climate. This is equivalent to charging these people a fee (or fining them) for wanting to contribute to their locality and is a huge disincentive for public sector employees who are taking part in the elections, with the ultimate aim of offering their time voluntarily to work for the good of their community.

I called AD and asked them for their comments and they sent me a copy of an email they received from the human resources department of the public administration. The following is an extract from the e-mail in question:

"Nixtieq ninfurmak li l-paragrafu 4.1 tal-imsemmija Direttiva tipprovdi illi uffiċjali pubbliċi li jkunu jokkupaw pożizzjoni li mhix politikament ristretta, jistgħu jagħżlu li japplikaw għal leave speċjali bla ħlas sabiex jikkontestaw l-elezzjonijiet tal-Kunsilli Lokali. Dan il-leave jkun jibda mill-ewwel ġurnata tax-xogħol wara li titħabbar uffiċjalment id-data tal-elezzjoni.

Iżda l-kandidati  prospettivi  jridu ta' bilfors jieħdu mill-anqas ħmistax-il ġurnata ta' xogħol bħala leave speċjali bla ħlas li, tal-anqas, jumejn minn dan il-perjodu jridu jittieħdu qabel jum il-votazzjoni u jumejn oħra wara li jitħabbar ir-riżultat tal-elezzjoni.

Bla dubju, tapprezza li huwa essenzjali li l-fiduċja li l-pubbliku in ġenerali għandu jkollu fl-imparzjalita' tas-Servizz Pubbliku ma' tiġi mittiefsa bl-ebda mod.  Kien għal din ir-raġuni li nħasset il-ħtieġa li waqt l-aħħar fażi tal-kampanja elettorali, l-uffiċjali  pubbliċi li jkunu se jikkontestaw l-elezzjonijiet tal-Kunsilli Lokali, jinfatmu mill-qadi tad-doveri uffiċjali tagħhom billi jieħdu perjodu ta' leave speċjali bla ħlas."

Translated roughly, the main gist of the e-mail is that prospective candidates are obliged to take at least 15 days of unpaid leave. The reasoning is that the rules have been put in place to safeguard "public confidence in the impartiality of the Public Service".

There is no explanation provided as to how locking people out of the workplace for 15 working days will ensure that they remain impartial - or even what these employees need to be impartial about. Furthermore, if they are not impartial, how does their taking 15 days of vacation resolve the matter?

I was totally flummoxed by this turn of events, particularly given that the directive made it impossible for certain categories of public sector employees to participate in the elections. The most obvious example is teachers, who cannot just take three weeks off and abandon their students. I very much doubt that the agreement in place between the Malta Union of Teachers and the Education Department caters for this ridiculous obligatory three week "holiday" and even if it did, it would definitely be detrimental for students should the directive be enforced.

Based on the above I totally understand AD's stand about the matter. Their interpretation of the directive was correct and matched the interpretation given by the government officials who replied to their queries. So you can imagine my surprise when Principal Permanent Secretary Godwin Grima issued a statement saying that the directive had been misinterpreted. My feeling is that this is not a case of the directive being misinterpreted, but rather that the directive was written in a confusing manner. Another obvious possibility is that the directive meant exactly what it said but that the government is backtracking due to the backlash.

It is totally possible that the spirit of Directive 5 was to encourage participation by public sector employees in public and political life and to make available 15 days of unpaid leave to those who needed it. However this is not what the directive says. The best way forward at this stage would be to change the wording of clause 4.1 from "the prospective candidate has no option but to avail himself/herself of unpaid electoral leave" to "the prospective candidate has the option to avail himself/herself of unpaid electoral leave". That would resolve the matter once and for all and will ensure that no future spats regarding the interpretation of this directive arise.

Kudos to AD for bringing this matter to the public's attention and making sure that it is resolved.