Tue | Aug 22, 2017

Editorial | Reprise public-sector charters, but add teeth

Published:Saturday | March 4, 2017 | 3:00 AM

Thirteen years ago, Omar Davies, then the finance minister, insisted that telephones in his ministry should be answered within five rings, a telephone customer shouldn't be redirected more than three times, and a caller ought not to have been placed on hold for more than 30 seconds.

Further, anyone doing business in person at the ministry or any of its agencies should be directed to the correct department within five minutes, and emails should be responded to within two days, and hard copy letter within 20.

"We have put these quantitative measures to the public and we dare not fail," Dr Davies said at the time. He promised, by some in cognito method perhaps, to monitor performances.

That undertaking was part of the latest iteration of a then eight-year-old effort to reform Jamaica's public sector to make it more efficient, responsive to the private sector, and be a facilitator of economic growth.

Whether Dr Davies ever kept his promise to survey his standards as part of a wider public-sector commitment to a set of Citizens' Charters is not clear. But if he did, the anecdotal evidence, from the finance ministry and in the public sector generally, suggests that he wasn't particularly successful.

Now, it's the turn of Andrew Holness, the prime minister, for whose administration it is a critical benchmark in Jamaica's agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), without much more space or time to kick the can down the road.

In any event, Mr Holness suggests, after two decades of marking time, and with Jamaica on the brink of reform fatigue, the Government is committed to getting the job done. "... This time it must be done," he said.

The programme presumes that agencies will be rationalised to eliminate overlap and waste and to modernise a time-stuck bureaucracy. In some instances, jobs will be lost. Eventually, public-sector salaries, now at just under 11 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), will fall to nine per cent.

Said Mr Holness recently: "For too long the public sector has believed that their jobs exist in and on behalf of themselves and their jobs have no bearing on the economy. The transformation (the latest nomenclature for the process) requires a shift in mindset in how the public-sector employee sees himself or herself."

Mr Holness is right; and the big transformative things need to be done. But, so, too, must the little ones. Such as those identified by Dr Davies in 2004.

But among the shortcomings of that initiative was its lack of teeth; there were no consequences for failing to meet standards. Or, the penalties were not transparent.

Our suggestion in this respect is that as he pursues the large, complex undertakings of reforming the Government, Mr Holness should reprise the old concept of the charter, but with consequences for the Government, and individual employees, for failing to meet service standards.

For instance, if a project approval application should be decided on in a specific number of days, the application fee and the lost opportunity cost should be rebated to the applicant for each day it is overdue, once he has met all requirements. At the same time, each employee's contribution to any such delay should be reflected in his appraisal.