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Understanding Lee-Chin's latest jeremiad

Raulston
Nembhard

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

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In his recent presentation on the work of the Economic Growth Council (EGC) Chairman Michael Lee-Chin lamented the stumbling block represented by the civil service in getting economic growth in the country. He spoke against the background of the anaemic growth in the economy and specifically the 0.3 gross domestic product (GDP) growth in the last quarter. This level of growth must be reckoned against the ambitious five per cent growth in four years (“5 in 4”) that was trumpeted by the council.

In his presentation, Lee-Chin came across as a very frustrated if not angry man. Frustrated, because he sees a country which, with the help of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), all its macroeconomic indices are pointing in the right direction. He sees an economy poised for growth, but yet one which cannot move reasonably from potential to actualisation, from hope to realised expectations. Angry, and I would say righteously so, because he can identify the impediments to this growth; for example, a lackadaisical civil service, yet he does not have the authority to fire anyone or do something about it. In his quieter moments, or in relaxed sessions with his friends over his favourite drink, he must lament how he feels about the Jamaican public sector and the lethargy of politicians regarding economic growth in the country.

He placed a great deal of the blame on the civil service. He alleged, no doubt to the ire of the civil service leadership, that there are political operatives there that are sabotaging the work of the Government in achieving growth. He averred that permanent secretaries ought to be terminated when they fail to do their jobs, indicating that they are a major retardant to growth.

The sabotaging of the work of a Government by civil servants for political purposes is a very serious charge and ought to be supported by evidence. But it is not difficult in the context of the tribal culture of our politics to see some veracity in Lee-Chin's charge. We all know that the civil service is one of the institutions that has suffered from the corrupting tentacles of the political directorate over the years. An independent civil service exists in name only in Jamaica. What we have seen since Independence, and especially starting in the heady days of political victimisation and violence in the 1970s, is a civil service that has been tethered to the fortunes and misfortunes of successive governments.

When it comes to the Jamaican civil service, neither major political party comes to the table with clean hands and a pure heart. It is no secret that political operatives are placed in key areas of government to support the wishes of the party in power, often against the people's interest. It is no secret also that holdovers from the Opposition party are likely to exercise negative influences in sabotaging the work of the Government in support of their party. This is one of the uncomfortable truths that we must face as a society. Wrapping ourselves around a fig leaf of self-righteous hypocrisy when it suits us will not make the problem go away.

So, while I may not have stated the charge as Lee-Chin did, I cannot help but find sympathy for his viewpoint that the civil service has been so corrupted. The problem might have diminished in recent times because of increased media scrutiny, especially from social media. But make no mistake that the political directorate will exert undue influence whenever it can on the service to further their own political ends. As chief executives in each ministry, the permanent secretaries must share a great deal of the blame for any acquiescence to political influence. They certainly should, where the policies of the Government languish because of an absence of vigorous oversight over the departments committed to their charge.

They invite pressure from the politician who grows impatient with the inordinate delays in executing policy. This is perhaps why Lee-Chin and the growth council have been so chagrined by the delay in the implementation of the AMANDA (application management and data automation) system. This is a project that would allow builders and developers to track online the progress of their development plans through the system. Today, the smooth and quick passage of development and building plans continues to be a vexatious matter. Significantly, this speaks to the ease of doing business. Every successive government recognises the problem of the inordinate delays in approving building plans, yet none has been able to do anything of merit to assuage the anxieties of builders and developers who have had to pay more in increased costs and escalations as a result of delays. In situations like this, corruption will abound as money is likely to be passed under the table to move projects with expedition through the system.

If the Government is serious about economic growth the structural inefficiencies in the civil service must be addressed. A great deal of this has to do with staff rationalisation and training. We need a nimble, but efficient civil service that can address the demands of a changing work environment in technology and digitalisation. Thus, the fear of the politicians to do what must be done to create this efficient and nimble service, notwithstanding the unions, must be overcome. Dr Nigel Clarke, the minister of finance and the public service, must move with greater alacrity in completing the public sector reform agenda. This would serve as a useful vaccine against the virus of lethargy that is still too evident in too many government departments. Significantly, it would make the Jamaican civil service a useful ally of its growth agenda.

Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest and social commentator. Send comments to the Observer or stead6655@aol.com.


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