RED tape is killing Jamaica. A recent Global Competitiveness Report disclosed that Jamaican businesses are more hampered by red tape than the yellow tape of crime and theft. This is a most startling revelation which has seemingly slipped below the radar already as the country grapples with the myriad problems facing it, inclusive of the nosedive that the Jamaican dollar has taken.
In his June Sectoral Debate presentation Opposition Member of Parliament Daryl Vaz hit the nail on the head when he opined that: "If we are to become 'the place of choice to live, work, raise our families and do business', then bureaucratic transformation and gradual elimination must be aggressively pursued."
In a previous intervention, in May, a senior Cabinet member of the Portia Simpson Miller-led Administration, Transport, Works and Housing Minister Dr Omar Davies, reiterated what she said in her Budget presentation: "We have been so concerned about the unscrupulous among us, that we have red-taped our economy into decline. We cannot continue to stifle business because of a few unscrupulous individuals. We have to free up the business sector for growth. We must activate the systems to catch and punish the corrupt, whoever they are and wherever they are. We have to cut the red tape."
Strong words indeed, but even as I am writing this article I am aware of several frustrated business persons who have given up on ever doing business in Jamaica because of the frustrations they have had to go through in order to pursue their legitimate plans in the marketplace.
Part of the red tape scenario is that there is a constant complaint coming from members of the business community that they find it extremely difficult to speak to a minister -- and it is not about asking for a waiver! Sometimes it is just advice or moral support. But regrettably, getting to a minister and holding his attention for a few minutes is a most challenging task
In this context, I do believe that ministers should set aside some time when they make themselves available to budding entrepreneurs, as well as seasoned business persons who need some attention. And this should not be the staged/managed face-to-face encounters with glaring cameras and media hounds looking for a sound bite. It should be an in camera, no-holds-barred session, because too often ministers, in their ivory towers, are disconnected from the everyday problems facing business operators.
I am taking a strong stance on this issue because it goes to the heart of effective governance in this country, which is still sadly lacking in many ways. Government must not only be responsible, but responsive. In this regard, Minister Davies had indicated that the Government had engaged the Office of the Contractor General with a view to reduce the time from which a request for proposal (RFP) is issued and the granting of approval by Cabinet. Pronouncements must be followed up by action and accountability. It is full time that we get an update on this request, because Rome is burning while too many Neros out there in the public service fiddle away not caring a damn!
As Mr Vaz has pointed out: "Some of the red tape is generic to all government entities. These can be identified and broadly eliminated or streamlined. Others are peculiar entities and will have to be dealt with entity by entity. It may not be possible to tackle all at one time. What is both necessary and doable is to determine the mission, galvanise the resolve and the political will, identify those entities that are most critical to investment and national development, and get going. Others can be brought on board as the mission proceeds."
From these abovementioned utterances from both politicians on either side of the House, it is clear that there is consensus, so why the pussyfooting? Clearly, the way to go, if Jamaica is to come out of the red and move into the black, is for there to be a bipartisan approach bolstered by full and constructive support from civil society and the private sector.
There is already in place a Public Sector Transformation Unit, the aims of which are:
(1) to develop a master plan for rationalisation and restructuring of government ministries and agencies to eliminate waste and reduce cost; and
(2) to review the administrative procedures and transactional processes of government operations and the public's experience in doing business with Government simple and friendly.
According to Vaz, the first part of the mandate was completed and presented to Parliament two years ago. "The second part is the work, that remains to be done." And he goes on to mention that one area that needs rationalisation and restructuring, so as to reduce waste and cost and make the public's experience in doing business with Government simple and friendly, is the Development Applications Approval Process. This, he believes, would lead to increased employment and growth of the economy in the short to long term.
Unfortunately, even with the best of intentions, Jamaica continues to be a nightmarish experience for potential investors. Some 18.6 per cent of respondents interviewed by the Swiss-based think tank -- World Economic Forum -- felt that inefficient government bureaucracy was the most problematic factor for doing business in Jamaica, followed by 15.7 per cent for crime and theft. Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, who focused on this bugbear in her Budget speech this year, must now walk the talk and lead from in front with respect to this pressing issue. Circumventing laws or conventional practices will not be enough. What is needed is a change in the culture of how we do business in this country, known for high levels of under-the-table dealings. It is, therefore, incumbent on Government at the highest level to begin the transformation.
Mr Vaz, in his well-thought-out presentation, has suggested that the minister of finance commission a study to ascertain the true costs, both direct and indirect, of red tape to the economy. Such an evidence-based assessment will help to set the stage for a pragmatic and sustained approach to dealing with this vexing and debilitating matter.
Minister Davies, in the meantime, has indicated that from issuance of a RFP to approval by Cabinet should be completed in three months, "and for that to become the norm, rather than the exception". We must hold the minister to his words because this would be a giant step for the Jamaican economy.
Lloyd B Smith is a member of parliament and deputy speaker of the House of Representatives. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the People's National Party or the Government of Jamaica.