Overcoming the hurdles in public sector transformation

Overcoming the hurdles in public sector transformation


Sunday, February 16, 2020

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A recent experience at the Constant Spring tax office tells me that we are still a long way off from achieving the goals of public sector transformation. Mind you, great strides have been made over the last four to five years, not of course to gainsay the fact that some significant changes have been made since the process began more than three decades ago. We can readily point to the vast improvements in services at the Passport Immigration and Citizenship Agency and Registrar General's Department. What, however, we have not been able to make an appreciable change to are the mindsets and attitudes of public servants.

The Public Sector Transformation Oversight Committee (PSTOC), which was set up over three years ago, and which I had the honour to co-chair along with the cabinet secretary, was able to the meet the critical targets set out under the IMF/GOJ's Public Sector Transformation Programme.

It was at the time, deemed necessary by the prime minister to separate the reform of the public sector from the financial and economic objectives of the Government, and to provide stakeholder oversight for the transformation process. It worked well with the Economic Programme Oversight Committee, and turned out to work equally well for PSTOC in terms of monitoring the process and meeting the structural benchmarks.

But the recent experience at the tax office was a clear sign that there are two issues which must be resolved going forward: first is that the technological upgrades, designed to improve services to the public, must be constantly evaluated to ensure that it in fact does. The technological improvements at Constant Spring seem to have negatively impacted the waiting period; and this is from the shared experiences of several people in recent times.

Second is, of course, bad customer service, which not only plagues the public sector, but the private sector as well. The attitude of public sector workers about the transformation process and the connection with their own well-being may exist in small pockets throughout the service, but is certainly not widespread. The supervisor at the driver's licence renewal section seems to have got it right, the frontline customer service representatives certainly did not.

Dr Nigel Clarke, the minister of finance and the public service, has articulated the vision of a future public sector in clear and precise terms. He is passionate and committed about creating a public sector that is fair, values people, and delivers high-quality services. A three-hour wait at the tax office for the renewal of a driver's licence, and the feeling that you're bothering the customer service representatives when you enquire about the long delay, does not even begin to rise to Dr Clarke's standard. The technology and ambience have improved, but the quality service seems to have worsened, and the attitude remains anything but friendly.

If public service is to deliver effectively, efficiently and in good time, then beyond the herculean tasks of the Transformation Implementation Unit and their focus on building shared corporate services, strengthening human resource management, rationalising public bodies, creating public sector efficiency through ICT, and wage bill management, the change management process must be accelerated.

In the last 20 years, global attention has been placed on the new public management paradigm to bring into sharp focus the need to create a robust public sector with 'business-like' service delivery and improved efficiency through the use of private sector management models. The general characteristics of the new public management range from rationalisation of public bodies to accountability for performance, privatisation, democratisation and citizen participation, customer-focus, performance management, separation of politics and administration and changed management style.

We have also seen in the last 20 years increasing research linking quality institutions to economic growth. While economic growth is crucial to a country's development, it is said that institutional development determines whether the growth trajectory can be sustained over the long term.

This is where we are now as a country, seeking to build quality institutions, through public sector transformation, so as to ensure sustainable development. The assessment of the quality of public institutions is identified in some key indicators outlined by the World Bank. These include:

• Voice and accountability: capturing the extent to which a country's citizens can select and challenge its Government, thus limiting executive power.

• Political stability and absence of violence: the lower the probability of political instability and/or politically-motivated violence, the more a country's citizens are incentivised to invest in their own prosperous future.

• Government effectiveness: capturing the quality of public services and the degree of its independence from political pressures, thus fostering a benign context for private investment.

• Regulatory quality: the ability of the Government to formulate and implement sound policies and regulations that permit and promote private sector development, thus laying down uniform rules of economic engagement.

• Rule of law: captures particularly the quality of contract enforcement, property rights, the police, and the courts, ie the enforcement of the rules of society;

• Control of corruption: the stronger is control of corruption, the more economic success is a function of effort and competence, rather than connections and bribery.

• Ease of doing business: captures a multitude of aspects that determine the extent to which the regulatory environment is conducive to business operation.

Jamaica does extremely well on some of these indicators, for example, our free and fair elections, political stability and the absence of politically-motivated violence. Some areas in which our institutional quality remains weak are the enforcement of the rule of law, combating corruption, and building out a regulatory framework that is conducive to business growth and development.

To buttress the economic stabilisation which started seven years ago under the watchful eyes of the International Monetary Fund, our public institutions must be seen as trustworthy. This is important if they are to have the observable effects on outcomes like sustained economic growth, security and access to service. The relationship is also recursive since positive social and economic development does increase the popular trust among public institutions.

What we have found is that the existing norms, assumptions, values and attitudes within our public service have defined the leadership style, organisational learning, systems of rewards and motivation, and has influenced the ways in which employees and management understand organisational reality and carry out their functions to the public. It has helped to shape an organisational culture in our public sector that seems quite resistant to change. Academic researchers have pointed to the fact that where organisational culture is dominated as is in our case by 'stability and conservatism', then changes in the organisation will be considered harmful and conducted with a great degree of resistance from employees. Even at the leadership level the resistance will be felt as management will resort to being 'passive executives of change'.

On the other hand, where organisational culture is dominated by the value of flexibility, employees at all levels will consider changes to be positive both for the organisation and themselves. In this regard, changes are seen as a continuous process, are therefore likely to be incremental and conducted with less resistance and more participation from employees.

The public discourse on the transformation process has not fully embraced the kind of narrative that employees can buy into. True, statements have been made about the significance of transformation to the public sector employees, but these have been, by and large, overshadowed by notions of wage restrictions and job losses. There is need for a better articulation of the core purpose and strategic narrative that public sector workers can understand and buy into, and the importance of our citizens seeing the link between effective quality service and good governance from our stewardship.

A 2012 report by the UK Government on 'Employee engagement and public sector transformation' examined the efforts of public service leaders to re-engineer the way in which public service was delivered. It concluded that reform cannot take place “without significant behaviour change on the part of mangers at all levels and employees on the front line”.

Changing the attitude and culture within the public service will be key in the transformation process. The condition for that change must lie in the meaningful outcome that both public servants and the public at large envision. Management will have to play a crucial role in leading that change within the organisation through the engagement of the employees and by offering leadership that is caring, courageous, visionary and committed.

Employees are going to transition differently based on their personal experience with change and how they see themselves likely to be affected. It is therefore important to be keenly aware of how employees are likely to react to change and to look out for their emotional mood and behavioural response in the transitional stage.

— Danny Roberts is the former co-chair of the Public Sector Transformation Oversight Committee and head of the Hugh Shearer Labour Studies Institute, The UWI Open Campus. He can be reached at strebord02@gmail.com

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