The world is full of bad governments. Some are brutal and others corrupt. A small number are both brutal and corrupt, and a fair number are just inefficient or incompetent. Most of the brutal and corrupt ones are un-elected dictatorships. A surprising number of democratically elected governments are both corrupt and inefficient. The Virgin Islands has one of these. It is a government that has presided over a multi-decade decline in the territorys fortunes.
Why don't people just throw bad governments out? Don't they have only themselves to blame? Not easy questions to answer. What is interesting — almost everywhere, not just in the Virgin Islands — is how much incompetence, venality and waste people are willing to tolerate before they react.
Politicians learn how to calibrate their actions so that they can get close to the edge, but never provoke the kind of organized response that would drive them from office and produce real system change. Most of them are smart enough to understand that once these reactions get rolling and people are mobilized, there is no turning them back.
What is striking about the Virgin Islands is how high the level of tolerance for bad government is. In other jurisdictions, most of the Virgin Islands' recent governors and most members of its Senate would have been run out of office long ago.
Will the clearly outrageous salary increases that these officials have awarded themselves provoke Virgin Islanders to actually do something to roll back the raises and improve the quality of their government? Based on experience, the answer is likely to be "no." There is probably just too much pessimism and cynicism.
But, there is a chance that Mr. Turnbull and the others have mis-calibrated this time — that a sufficient number of people will say "enough is enough" and be willing to invest the required time to do something about it.
If that happens, and if it the protest sustained, it is all over, not only for this cast of characters, most of whom have long overstayed their welcome, but also for the corrupt, insider-driven system that has evolved over the years.
Step 1 is to mobilize enough people around the issue of the salary increases to force the governor to rescind them. How do you do that? What are the vehicles for bringing people together? Who will lead the movement? An initial requirement is to understand that being outraged is light work. Anybody can display outrage. In the absence of organization and a plan, it leads nowhere.
Step 2 is even more critical. It is to figure out where to go from here. The salary increases are important in a symbolic sense, i.e., they are totally undeserved and reflect official greed and cynicism. They also have some substantive importance in the sense that they are being given in a zero-sum environment. Every dollar that goes into Mr. Turnbull's pocket comes out of some other public service. Actually, the dollar amounts are relatively small. What is critical to understand is that these raises can be a hook for getting at the decayed systems and structures that have debilitated the Virgin Islands and continue to eat away at hope for the future.
The key is to think through what should be changed. The starting point is to develop a clear and achievable vision of what the territory should look like in the future. Simply rolling back these increases — while a real accomplishment, if it can be done — is not enough.
The current government, as well as its immediate predecessors, has shown an extraordinary indifference to the well being of the people, particularly the young and the most vulnerable. Rolling back these salary increases won't help in getting at the core issues that will determine the future of the territory. But while this hook is available, it should be used to catch a bigger fish and to begin the process of restoring faith in the future possibilities for all Virgin Islanders.
Editor's note: Management consultant Frank Schneiger has worked with V.I. agencies since 1975, most recently as consultant to United Way of St. Thomas/St. John. He was one of the founders of the St. Thomas/St. John Youth Multiservice Center.
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