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Who will bell the cat for public sector reform?

Raulston
Nembhard

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

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The International Monetary Fund (IMF), in its latest assessment of Jamaica's performance in its Stand-By Agreement with the Government, has praised the the continued exemplary performance of the programme. According to the mission appraisal team to Jamaica: “All quantitative conditions and structural benchmarks were met, and the Government's reform plan is broadly on schedule. Strong domestic ownership of the reform agenda across two different governments and the broader society has helped to entrench macroeconomic stability and fiscal discipline. The authorities' sustained commitment, coupled with the ongoing programme monitoring by civil society, has paved the way for reforms to be increasingly domestically owned, designed and executed.”

With such commendation the Government can be duly pleased, but should not get ahead of itself in self-congratulation. The truth is that behind this optimistic appraisal, there is still a great deal of work to be done if the country's economy is to grow at any significantly sustained level. It is not enough to achieve macroeconomic stability if this does not translate into economic growth and the enhancement of the economic prospects of the Jamaican people.

This concern is correct because, ultimately, any good and lasting result of the IMF programme will reside in whether it has placed the country on a path of sustained economic growth. Many believe that the macroeconomic ducks have been lined up properly and the platform has been created for this kind of growth to occur. So the question is, why has this not happened? And it should be particularly discouraging to Michael Lee-Chin and the members of the Economic Growth Council that robust growth has remained so elusive; that their dream of achieving the five per cent growth in four years ('5 in 4' initiative) may not be realised. Like them, we wait to see what the reopening of Alpart will add to the growth numbers in the near term.

But there are demons in the room that have hindered economic growth and are now impatient of exorcism. One of these, of course, is the country's high, unsustainable debt rate. The debt rate has come down appreciably, but there must be concern that debt financing and public sector wage demands account for about two-thirds of the country's budget. Those who are concerned know too well that these demonic impediments to economic growth have been built up irresponsibly over a number of years to satisfy political agendas. One calls attention to them here, not because they are obvious impediments, but because every so often those we elect to lead us do not seem seized of the need to break the grip of these twin demons on the body politic. We know too well how deficits are run to facilitate election agendas and how State resources are frittered away to ensure that party adherents are kept happy.

We know that the real reason public sector reform has not been tackled with any alacrity by successive governments lies in the fact that our political leaders do not want to take the hard, but necessary decisions. They make political calculations, not economic ones. They know that any real reform of the sector will result in the loss of jobs as deadwood is cleared from the system and overlapping functions scrapped. Any decision that can cause the base of the party even minimum pain must be shelved or postponed or sacrificed for the greater good of maintaining favour with the party.

Frankly, this has been the case with the Jamaican Urban Transport Company, as with so many government departments. If a careful audit or analysis of the requisite cadre to run an efficient urban transportation system was done there would not be an excess of 500 workers there. How does this translate across the entire public bureaucracy? How many people are hanging on to their jobs not because they are needed to perform those functions, but because it is politically expedient for them to be there?

Do not look to the politicians for a forthright answer to these questions. The truth is that over the years party supporters and consultants have to be favoured. Professional civil servants who value their work above party loyalty often find it difficult to operate in an environment in which consultants, who are no more than political hacks, dictate how government policies are to be executed. Often these consultants have no more knowledge of what has to be done, but their political clout buys them presence and power. Couple this with an overbearing minister of government and you get the perfect storm and toxic environment that confronts the professional. They hold back so as not to irritate the petulant consultant or a truculent minister, especially one with a junior rank. Importantly, they hold back so as not to cause themselves harassment or lose the job or impair their pension.

It is with some bemusement that one listens to the lamentations of senior ministers of Government as to the unproductive nature of the government bureaucracy. Karl Samuda, minister of the super-ministry of industry, commerce and agriculture, and Delroy Chuck, minister of justice are two such. Both bemoan the slow pace in the systems that hinder progress; Samuda going as far as to wish that older folks who have been at the wicket for far too long should make way for younger people who are agile and rearing to get the job done.

I am bemused because their party now holds the reins of power and can do something about it. They have the power to bring a breath of fresh air to the bureaucracy. But where is their stridency, and that of their colleagues, to overhaul the bureaucracy or to put an end to the politicisation of the civil service? In too many instances the politician is the problem. This fulfils President Ronald Reagan's famous dictum that the Government is the problem. They have aided and abetted inefficiency and gross neglect of duty and now that they are at the receiving end of this depredation they have the temerity to bawl about it.

There can be no doubt that meaningful reform of the public sector must take place this time around, because the IMF is insisting on it. One is confident also because Prime Minister Andrew Holness seems seized of the urgency, beyond political myopia, to get this done. But even then one can expect a piecemeal and tepid approach. They will not do the aggressive cuts that are necessitated and will kick the proverbial can down the road by appearing not to be too cruel in their actions. But nothing short of an aggressive overhaul will work.

No one wants to see anybody lose their jobs. But no one should be content with waste and mismanagement in government which affect revenue and retard economic growth. There is no symbiosis between mediocrity and robust economic growth. Workers with a strong work ethic will survive in any environment, however hostile. So the hard-working civil servant who brings a sense of professionalism to his or her work need not fear, however the axe swings.

In the meantime, one would urge the Government, as part of public sector reform, that a Public Sector Commission be put in place to vet and oversee appointments to government boards. This commission should also have authority over the appointment of consultants to the various ministries of government. Its functions should be given constitutional privilege, like the Electoral Commission, so it would not be subject to the dictates, whims and fancies of a political directorate. This would lead to greater transparency, accountability and efficiency in the lethargic bureaucracy that now exists. Most importantly, it would be shorn of political influence and chicanery.

Like other such initiatives, the politicians will have the most to lose if such a body should be put in place. It would break their grip on processes over which they now have control and which have been essential to their perpetuation of power. But the self-interests of politicians are not what Jamaicans are about. The one-term syndrome that is emerging in our politics may very well be a signal that people are really beginning to notice the incongruity between promise and fulfilment on the part of their leaders and are demanding change so that their best interests can be realised. Long may this last.

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

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