Martin Henry | Bureaucracy and growth
Good thing I checked online. The Gleaner quickly changed its print headline, 'Laziness, inefficiency crippling growth - PM' to 'Bureaucracy, inefficiency stifling growth - PM' in the online version of the news story "to more accurately reflect what was said by Prime Minister Andrew Holness".
Who pushed back? The Office of the Prime Minister or the Jamaica Civil Service Association?
It can be dangerous for political leaders to provoke their battle-ready, if not work-ready, civil service. Minister of Justice Delroy Chuck was driven to his knees when he publicly pointed out the patently obvious that if people were getting bogus divorces, there must be corruption in the administrative division of the Supreme Court that handled divorces.
Minister Chuck had to crawl on hands and knees down to Justice Square with his mouth full of pathetic apologies to get staffers off strike action and back to work. We haven't heard of any follow-up to dig out the glaring corruption out of the handling of divorce cases. Nor indeed anything about the start-up activities of the newly established Integrity Commission.
When all the corrections are made for media sensationalism and possible inaccuracy, it still remains pretty obvious that the prime minister was lashing the civil service for lackadaisical attitudes and poor performance that breed corruption.
While laziness is a function of the individual worker, bureaucracy is a creation of the designers and owners of the system. The average Jamaican citizen has very little awareness of the depth of frustration that political leadership faces over the weaknesses and failures of their arms and legs, the public service, to deliver on promises, polices, programmes, and plans. And it is the politicians who get the rap. But as the creators and owners of the bureaucracy who will not fix it, it may well serve them right.
Prime Minister Holness was speaking late last month at the official groundbreaking ceremony for Foreshore Estate off Spanish Town Road in the constituency formerly held by the formidable Portia Simpson Miller for nearly 40 years and in the heart of inner-city Kingston.
They're building only 230 "housing solutions". The national need is 10 times that per annum. But it's a nice-looking project for several reasons. It will be a mixture of different-sized units with social amenities included. It's in the inner city, where soulless, monotonous, and cramped housing tends to be built for poor people. The scheme goes up in the second strongest PNP garrison backed by a JLP Government and its prime minister, with a very needy constituency himself. Just around the corner is Tivoli Gardens, which was built by state financing in the 1960s and preferentially populated with supporters of the architect.
Although South West St Andrew has been as much as 104 per cent PNP, I hope political loyalty will not be an access factor for Foreshore Estate. What a day that would be if JLP people from neighbouring west Kingston can own a house in Foreshore Estate!
Foreshore Estate could be the watershed place for the start of the long-delayed housing revolution, the degarrisonisation of inner-city Kingston with dramatic crime reduction, and, yes, a watershed for the transformation of the public sector.
The project has taken two years to get off the ground. The prime minister lamented the inefficiency in the public sector, which held up the project, and expressed his frustration that the project had taken too long to get off the ground. And, directly addressing PNP MP Dr Angela Brown Burke, he appealed for bipartisan support in tackling its long-overdue reform. The necessary approvals from local authorities and other agencies, he charged, were mired in unnecessary bureaucracy.
CATALYST FOR CORRUPTION
The PM propounded that inefficiency is the flip side of corruption, and wherever there is inefficiency, there will be corruption, a situation that thrives in countries such as Jamaica.
"The purpose of the bureaucrat is not to stop things from happening. The purpose of the bureaucrat is to make sure that things happen speedily in the right way," he told his audience. "But bureaucrats in developing countries have taken on a perspective that their job is to stop things from happening."
Lag time has long been a turnoff for investors who feel that there is no premium of speed of process in Jamaica and will, therefore, continue to take their money where they are more likely to get other incentives as well, the prime minister pointed out. So what are he and his Government going to do about it?
But where are the transformative results in public-sector transformation from decades of past efforts?
The man the prime minister has shifted from the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries to the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, Karl Samuda, has been crying the same cry about stifling bureaucracy. These two superministries and the prime minister's Cabinet reshuffle will do nothing whatsoever to drive growth without fixing the fundamentals.
Addressing the 13th annual staging of the Montego Bay Free Zone employment awards ceremony a couple of weeks ago, Samuda declared: "Our mandate is to grow the economy and create jobs for the people, and the BPO sector is the sector that we're looking to, to making the greatest contribution in that regard. But we have to, first of all, look at how we can reduce the bureaucracy that is still plaguing the sectors within our economy, and this sector is no exception."
But the honourable minister should not just talk, but listen. According to the news story that reported his speech, the BPO sector, which currently accounts for close to 30,000 jobs across Jamaica, is claiming that it is stagnating because of the ongoing climate of uncertainty surrounding the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) Act, which came into effect in January 2016, and the range of new fees and taxes being imposed on the sector. This is not any laziness or inefficiency on the part of public servants, as real as these might be. These are laws and fees and taxes, set by the political administration, inhibiting a potential growth sector.
We have battered civil servants for laziness, poor service, inefficiency, poor performance, don't-care attitudes, and every other fault and failure in the book. Even their political masters are now dropping licks. But the designers and bosses of the bureaucracy must fix it from the ground up to achieve the efficiencies and performance that they want.
- Martin Henry is a university administrator.