Happy 2018 to all our readers and to the larger Jamaican population at home and abroad. The year ahead is comprised of two major challenges — the new challenges that will arise as the year progresses; and the previous challenges that could have been resolved but were left untreated.
The first category includes the external impacts that are beyond our control such as higher insurance rates; rising oil prices; trade restrictions; less international aid; and by no means least, the devastating effects of climate change on our Caribbean vulnerabilities.
In the second category there is crime (including murder and scamming); Government systems reform; public sector reform; and productivity. These have been repeatedly discussed but seem to have been unresolved or simply “left alone outside the off-stump”. Admittedly crime, scamming, and productivity do not seem to lend themselves to the “quick fix” and will take time to be adequately resolved.
However, the Government systems reform and the public sector reform present an exercise in logical thinking, decisive and timely action, and the leadership of change.
Government systems (including the justice system) have followed a Colonial process that was devoid of computers, accrual accounting, and modern communication methods. So letters are written waiting for an almost non-existent mail service, or which require a fleet of messengers (nowadays in expensive motor vehicles) perpetually detained in the uncontrolled traffic congestion. (By the way, when last have you received a telegram — now discontinued — or registered letter, and does most of the population have a reachable street address?)
We all seem to live in areas not defined on a Jamaican street map (with names related to politics or gangs like Zimbabwe, One Order, Gully bank, Shattaville, et al).
Original documents are required for processing and then lost by the departments who then tell customers that they cannot process without the originals. I lost a recently renewed Driver’s Licence, provided a copy from Constant Spring, only to be told that I had to go to downtown Kingston. There I was told that they could not re-issue unless they located the original document. When and where was it issued? I replied “November 23, 1968 in Spanish Town by the notably stern examiner, the late Mr Silvera”.
I promised the very polite and well-spoken lady that if she actually found it I would reward her husband and herself with a weekend for two at Sandals Royal Caribbean. Needless to say, I have kept my money, but I wonder if such an intelligent and polite lady should be employed to perform a task that is already computerized.
The new regime was put in place to prevent illiterate persons obtaining licences through corruption. This necessary reform should only require the re-testing of aspects of the licence at the renewal cycle instead of having to employ people whose only work is to search for paper-based historical documentation that must costs millions to store under proper conditions.
If we really applied systems logic to government departments then processes would be transparent and efficient. Sadly, my conclusion is that any opaque or arbitrary function in government is an opportunity for fraud, corruption or patronage.
This is clearly a political matter that has been perpetuated for decades by both major political parties as a means of illegally sharing the spoils and scarce benefits with the party faithful. Politics can no longer be used as a means to promote loyalty at the expense of efficiency while continually increasing debt as a support mechanism for this reprehensible habit. Regrettably, this requires an approach of equal treatment to the citizen rather than a reward process for blind party loyalty.
Public sector reform (both downsizing and re-allocation) has been a topical subject since the advent of wide availability of mainframe computers from the early 1970s and the boom of personal computers in the 1980s; and the continuing integration of computer/communications technologies of the 1990s to the present day, and the soon coming Artificial Intelligence.
As negotiations take place on wage settlement issues, the trade unions are asking for productivity-related pay scales (as opposed to their ancient and belligerent posture of past decades). The unions have become the progressives and no longer have the desire to only represent the “lumpen”; and most of their representational categories are made up of tertiary educated members. The unions are no longer slaves to their foundations in the 1938 political movement.
As sad as this may sound, National Heroes Sir Alexander Bustamante and Norman Washington Manley (BITU, and NWU) are not remembered by 75% of our population, and to many are mythical figures of a long lost era. The roots are gone, but structures have transformed and the needs for establishing new credibility are being ignored by the present regimes who can find nothing new to celebrate or inspire those that they pretend to lead. For their own leadership confidence, our current leaders need to build their own cachet and credibility, and establish new roots for future growth.
Public sector stability requires a commitment to ministries specifically dedicated to agreed economic, industrial, social, and technological areas. These cannot be reshaped every time a Government changes, or be cut and carved to dole out status to various parliamentarians who won their seats. There is a cost related to the change of ministry portfolios and to reassign staff, buildings, furniture and equipment to new locations. This stability is just cost-effective logic, and produces a consistent interface between the citizen and the Government.
This reduces the movement of files, losing documents, lack of continuity, and also provides a level of consistent performance appraisal for particular functions. This would become a better method for remuneration adjustments, and new categories that would include greater responsibility.
For example, John handles applications for Kingston and Surrey; Joy handles Middlesex; and Arthur handles Cornwall. John wins the lottery and leaves the job. The permanent secretary evaluates the work load and decides that Joy and Arthur can handle the flow, and offers them each a 25% salary increase. They agree and everyone is happy. They get more pay, productivity improves, and the Government saves 50% on the wage bill.
Public sector reallocation includes the assignment of competent persons from redundant processes to new and emerging areas that require attention. This does not allow for time-delaying decisions as soon as certain activities and processes are evaluated.
This includes the processes for oversight and regulation such as recently exposed inefficiency in monitoring, investigating, and enforcing, areas of child abuse. Also, the Bank of Jamaica, and the Financial Services Commission with regard to fit and proper evaluation and their endless fingerprinting could be merged and they could both accept that fingerprints are now stored digitally and therefore can be retained. It would seem that the regulations were written in the ink, paper, and cleaning agent for the fingerprint era. This does not qualify as modern.
Downsizing the public sector is the fear of the political apparatus. Few can argue that efficiency in the public sector must eventually lead to closure of entities and procedures, and people will have to be made redundant. (The politicians cringe at the very thought of being the one to bell the cat lest they be cast into hell, or worse, oblivion at the polls.) You can hear them shouting at public meetings, “it was them that made you redundant, not us” to the gyrating crowds that never ever had a job in the public sector. But it is good theatre.
The public sector has had an enviable record of offering training to its employees through generous education in vocational or tertiary areas. These persons have risen to levels of potential that cannot be sustained within the service. Most persons in this category have been afraid of taking the next step towards their own economic growth.
Well, necessity has always been the mother of invention (and innovation) and many former public sector employees have left the dead-end job and have become very successful. Just ask Michael Lee Chin about his prospects as an engineer in the PWD compared with his current status.
Politicians need not fear recrimination, as the persons released may actually be glad to be encouraged to take their future in their own hands. There has been no evidence of continuing dissent from formerly redundant employees. They have moved on successfully and pay taxes, or send home remittances. The only dissent is from those entrepreneurs who were totally disenfranchised by FINSAC.
The Government is meeting this week to reconsider its offer to the public sector. In all likelihood the Administration will go the route of offering allowances as has been done for decades. This is what caused the initial problems as these are non-taxable, but they seem to be problematic when computing separation payments.
Chalk allowance, clothing and uniforms and the like, are merely patchwork measures that do not lead towards excellence in performance, and may contravene international donor scrutiny in the longer term.
As I wrote in an article in early 2016, payouts do not have to be in cash, and in that I said the distribution of land could well spur a round of economic development with acceptable assets to justify SME growth, even with the commercial banking sector. The potential for joint ventures would multiply. This would not affect the IMF commitments that are currently in force.
It could well mean that a stable, efficient, and focused public sector, free from political interference and dedicated to policy implementation and procedural reform, could well be the solution to our current malaise. The question remains: Who will exhibit the leadership to bell the cat?