Does the civil service have the capacity to meet PM's developmental vision?
Prime Minister Andrew Holness addresses the Parliament in the 2023/24 Budget Debate. (Photo: Karl Mclarty)

Prime Minister Andrew Holness, microphone difficulties notwithstanding, delivered a broad and comprehensive vision of where he would want to take the country in the foreseeable future. He spent time to spell out his vision of what is possible and the developmental transformation that can take place in the country.

It was time well spent, but I wondered to what extent people were able to absorb the vitality of what he was trying to transmit. Obviously, he will need to return to some of the subjects discussed, at which time he will break them down into smaller, digestible morsels.

The question that hit me as I listened to the prime minister is whether Jamaica has the capacity to give energy to his broad vision for the country. I return, for example, to the civil service on which I have commented repeatedly in this column.

It is clear that many Jamaicans are frustrated with the shabby service they receive from government agencies — the lack of response to queries, the inability to communicate by phone call or e-mail with some of these agencies, the lethargic approach you receive when you have to visit these agencies, and wait in long lines to be attended to or await the pleasure of an agent who seems more interested in finishing a phone chat than attending to your needs.

The respect that the public often crave from these agencies is not given to them. People have told me that they have to be careful how they talk to agents in some departments or they will never get their matter addressed.

Often as you enter these agencies you are met with a dull or sullen face. Seldom are you met with the kind of vibe that tells you that people care about their jobs, enjoy what they are doing, and are willing to be of assistance. You get the impression that you are a nuisance. There is no ebullience to what many of them do.

Investors who are trying to get their developmental projects passed through the various agencies — the municipal authorities and attendant authorities — are still being met with delays. A case in point: A five-lot subdivision submitted in 2013 is still going through the process as the person doing the subdivision has not received any document to date from the parish council to indicate that the process is at an end. Queries that were raised were acted on by the developer to the satisfaction of the parties that requested them. The last communication the developer received is that the document was sent to the Ministry of Economic Growth to be signed off on.

This was over five months ago.

Yes, in 2022, for a project that was submitted to the municipal authority in 2013. The developer is still waiting.

In the meantime, costs have escalated well beyond 2013 figures. Who is to bear this loss? The lethargic civil servants who, no doubt, have caused these documents to sit on their desks?

Where is the alacrity that former Prime Minister Bruce Golding bemoaned when he had to speak to the matter during his tenure? There are other horror stories, but I will spare you them and space certainly would not allow me the leverage.

Suffice it to say, I have no doubt that the problem that this person is experiencing from a lethargic civil service is just a mere microcosm of the problem and the disease that permeates the civil service.

I am not beating up on anyone. Ask any minister of government and, if they are willing to be truthful, they will tell you of the frustrations that they have to endure in moving civil servants to do their work. As politicians, they will not say this openly, but they know that the disease of lethargy and nonchalance often work against their interests as they do the country's business.

This is not to say that there are not superb civil servants who take their work seriously. They bring a professional approach to what they do. They love their jobs and are willing to go the proverbial mile to get the work done. But from my reckoning they are few and far between.

The disease to which I alluded above is becoming more pernicious, in my view. It is one that permeates the entire public service. It also is certainly more pronounced in the public. So, it is against this background that I ask the question of how robustly can the prime minister execute his vision without sufficient healing from the public sector.

All the grand visions of Government will come to naught if you do not have a nimble public sector imbued with a strong work ethic to get the job done. Yet workers will clamour for increased wages but seem not prepared to give a commensurate increase in their productive efforts.

It cannot be all about getting a raise in pay for the same level of output. I do not know this to be so, but it would be pragmatic with the compensation package that is being concluded with the public sector that a corresponding overhaul in training accompany any decision.

How conversant, for example, are civil servants with the demands of a digital economy? It cannot be that, in the words of the minister of finance, that capital expenditure be "cannibalised" to satisfy public sector wages without a corresponding increase in the capacity of workers to produce more. Wage increases must be pegged to the willingness of workers to undergo ongoing training.

So, I hear the prime minister and find resonance with his vision, but, for me, there is still a big asterisk over it where the civil service is concerned. Can they meet the day? Do they understand that they are employees of the people of Jamaica?

Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest, social commentator, and author of the books: Finding Peace in the Midst of Life's Storm; Your Self-esteem Guide to a Better Life and Beyond Petulance: Republican Politics and the Future of America. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or

Raulston Nembhard

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