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Transformation of the public sector — Part 3

Canute Thompson, PhD

Sunday, October 01, 2017

In Part 1 (published March 12, 2017) I argued that a central pillar of public sector transformation is the insulation of the office of permanent secretary from political control and influence. Former Prime Minister P J Patterson is reported to have praised the late Herbert Walker whose execution of his job as permanent secretary was exemplary. Walker, according to the report, understood the lines of demarcation between the minister, who is responsible for policy, and the permanent secretary, who is responsible for execution of policy and operational control.

I recall an occasion while I served in the public sector and reported to the permanent secretary. I responded to apparent overreach by a minister who was directly giving instructions to employees who reported to me. I counselled these employees that the minister had no authority to give them any directive. Such directives, I told them, must come through the permanent secretary. One of the employees relayed what I said to the minister but, happily, only after I had repeated the counsel in an e-mail and copied both the permanent secretary and the minister. The minister reportedly described my instructions as BS.

Re-elevating the office of the permanent secretary to one free from political control and influence does not mean that the office becomes a law unto itself. The permanent secretary is accountable to the political directorate, but not to function as a party operative. The office is a creature of statute and servant of the public.

The larger narrative is that public sector reform is founded on accountability, the purpose of which is the advancement of the public's interest for which elected officials owe a duty of transparency and regard for the spirit and letter of the law. Politicians often try to control public officials. I recall one minister telling senior managers in his ministry, including the permanent secretary, that if they did not cooperate with him he would simply report them to the prime minister so as to have them removed. What does it mean for a permanent secretary to cooperate with a minister? The transformation of the public sector means putting an end to the ability of ministers to bully and browbeat public servants.

In Part 2 (published July 2, 2017), I argued, among other things, that the years of waiting for public sector transformation without seeing results need not break our spirit, as we can take pride in a number of accomplishments which at some point seemed improbable. Among these accomplishments is our world-class electoral system. The quality of our electoral system has put an end to bogus voting and false outcomes. We are capable of creating a public sector in which we can trust the results we see and accept as credible the information governments give.

To close this contribution, I offer some working suggestions, not final solutions, which may take us closer to an accountable public sector.


(1) Strengthening performance management

The public sector must move from being a place where people can find refuge when they either want easy money or cannot find a job elsewhere. It must become a place where one is admitted because of a track record of performance or a presumption of the capacity to perform. The public sector must be known for having clearly defined performance targets for those employed with reasonably rigorous standards, and for terminating the services of those who do not perform. In this regard, leadership must lead by example.

Thus, the prime minister's promise to have provided each minister with a job description in six months (by September 2016), which was pushed back to “within 18 months”, is now unjustifiably overdue. The prime minister's explanation was that the deadline pushback was to allow ministers time to have a better grasp of their portfolios. This is an unsound explanation.

At a private Cabinet retreat ministers were asked to assess their performance. Based on what yardstick? At the level of a Cabinet minister, a job description is a strategic tool that is based on each ministry having clearly defined functions and deliverables, regardless of the party in power. Public sector transformation requires that, in addition to job descriptions for ministers, there is a result focus for all employees with a strict performance management system in which employees are scored.


(2) Strengthen the rule of law

A society that is governed by the rule of law is one that says that lawful acts are grounded in principles to which we all subscribe. When actions — either by ordinary citizens or elected officials — run afoul of those principles, there should be consequences. Imposing consequences does not mean firing people, hounding them out of office, or locking them up for the least of infractions. Respect for the rule of law means that there is a standard by which we measure the probity of conduct, and when there are deviations there should be public conversation so as to ensure we are clear what the expected behaviour was, as well as appropriate sanctions, which may be mild, moderate, or severe.

Public officials, in ascending order, have the foremost responsibility for ensuring that respect in shown for the rule of law, and thus the governor general and the prime minister have the highest duty to show regard for the rule of law.


(3) Nurture the independence of oversight bodies

Checks and balances exist to prevent the abuse of power and to protect elected officials from themselves. But, more importantly, they exist to protect the society from the whims and indiscipline of public officials. The handling of the report on the $600-million de-bushing programme, which is not unique in Jamaica's practice of political patronage, is an example of how an oversight body can be undermined, rather than supported.

Despite a damning report that implicated three government ministers, the silence of the prime minister suggests that the report is a non-issue and non-event. I urge an accountability-committed parliamentarian to move an amendment to the Contractor General Act which will require the prime minister to provide a response to Parliament, within 21 days, to recommendations made in any Office of the Contractor General report, and that such recommendations and response be debated. This practice obtains in relation to other laws. For example, under the zone of special operations Act the prime minister must update Parliament in 10 days after a zone is named.


(4) Digitise public records

Many people will be able to identify with the “Can't Find the File” excuse often given when one is doing business with a public sector entity. Some people have had to resubmit hard-to-obtain documents time and again. Many business transactions are delayed and a whole host of dislocations encountered. One crucial step in public sector reform is the digitisation of public records to allow seamless access (with perhaps a few exceptions) by all public sector entities. Thus, in addition to ensuring that the file cannot be lost, members of the public doing business with the government would not need to supply different agencies with the same documents.


(5) Legislate efficiency standards and establish parameters for subject matters of ministries

The subject recommendation was made by the Nettleford Commission and reiterated by the Orane Commission. Some may recall the major confusion and bottleneck when the Holness Administration created the super ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation and pulled in several agencies. Recall Martin Henry's remark that “Daryl Vaz is not a process” in response to what had become a refrain of the prime minister when people sought directions on specific issues: “Talk to Daryl.” Despite an unprecedented three ministers without portfolio in this super ministry, many documents still require the signature of the prime minister, who is also the subject matter minister. The extent to which this super ministry may have stalled production, efficiency, and productivity is unknown, but I suspect that it is extensive.

The dispersed location of various arms of ministries is also an area which needs to be tackled both for the purpose of improving efficiencies and reducing the hassle that citizens have to encounter moving from one location to another of the same ministry. The approval processes for various transactions should also be largely automated. Algorithms can be written to facilitate the checking of documents that are uploaded and approval given via electronic means. Tax Administration Jamaica and National Land Agency have made some advances in this regard; other agencies need to catch up. I suspect it is the collection of money on which the variables of speed and timeliness are predicated — not so much ease of doing business.


(6) Establish an Office of Public Sector Performance Review

Having established permanent ministries and results-focused job descriptions, the Government needs to ensure that there is an independent body that assesses the performance of each ministry on an ongoing basis. This body would serve an auditing function that would do spot and random reviews of performance reports. The purpose would be to uncover supportive evidence to substantiate performance scores, as well as examine whether promotions or other rewards are warranted.

This office could well be located in the Office of the Auditor General for all I care. But imagine it preparing a report on a ministry which is known to give citizens no end of misery, showing that 90 per cent of staff score exceptionally well in their last three performance reviews. The permanent secretary for that ministry would have a lot of explaining to do, and that level of scrutiny would provide the material for public pressure and, hopefully, improvement.


Dr Canute Thompson is head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning, lecturer in the School of Education, and co-founder and chief consultant for the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative, at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also author of three books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or c