Editorial: Education ministry needs operational overhaul
Jamaica's education ministry oversees 1,017 public schools. Ten agencies report to it. The ministry manages an annual budget of more than J$80 billion. This, by any measure, is a huge operation.
Yet this ministry is still largely paper-based. There is very little automation of its processes. Until recently, many teachers and other staff were being paid by cheques which were collected by school bursars and principals at the ministry's offices. At the ministry's personnel office, paper files are packed many tiers high. Inevitably, files are lost and documents misplaced.
The upshot of all this is inefficiency in the management of the system. For example, there are many instances where teachers who are to be given leave actually proceed on leave without the necessary paperwork being completed because of a system bogged down by seemingly incompetent personnel. It is not unusual for it to take years for a retired teacher to receive his or her pension.
In this environment, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for taxpayers to get fair value from the investment in education. Yet, the administration faces calls to increase its spend on education in the face of the underperformance of Jamaican students. That, in the end, may be necessary. But given the shortage of resources, the first requirement must be for the education ministry to improve its internal efficiencies.
Unfortunately, Ronald Thwaites, the education minister, and his technocrats, even if they want to proceed with haste, can't act independently. Their ministry is part of a wider public service with interlocking management/operating arrangements.
For instance, with regard to the financial flows, it has reporting responsibility to the Ministry of Finance and Planning. Therefore, the Ministry of Education (MOE) cannot independently implement a much-needed automated system without it being compatible with requirements of the finance ministry.
So, while the MOE may have started the process, it has to await the finance ministry to implement the management information system it urgently needs to overhaul its functions. The Ministry of Finance has to act with alacrity to put in place the system that it acknowledges the MOE needs.
But the MOE's requirement is not only a computerised management system for its financial and human resources. It also needs personnel who have the skills that match the tasks to be done. It's an obvious question, for example, how a ministry that manages a J$80-billion budget operates without a chartered accountant on its staff. Further, given the complexities of education and the demands on the ministry, we would expect there to be an annual review of its staff to determine their level of competence and whether they need retooling or redeployment. Is that being done?
Bottom line is that we believe that the Government can save billions of dollars while directing more cash to the sectors of the education system where it is really needed by running a more efficient operation. Part of that process is implementing a fully computerised management information system - in a hurry.