Sun | Jan 17, 2021

Editorial | Herbert Walker and public-sector reform

Published:Sunday | September 17, 2017 | 12:00 AM

P.J. Patterson, the former prime minister, gave an important and telling anecdote about Herbert Walker, the celebrated civil servant who died a fortnight ago, aged 94. A young Mr Patterson became minister of industry, foreign trade and tourism in Michael Manley's government of the 1970s. Mr Walker was his first permanent secretary, or the ministry's top civil servant.

"'Tell me what you want done, and I will show you how to do it,' he remarked on my assumption of office," Mr Patterson said in his tribute.

That incident, Mr Patterson suggested, highlighted an important fact about Herbert Walker: "He was a model permanent secretary with clear lines of demarcation from that of the portfolio minister." The latter is responsible for policy, the former for their execution, as the ministry's chief accounting officer. Political partisanship is not expected to colour administrative action or policy implementation.

Mr Patterson's observation about Mr Walker has resonance and relevance at this time.


Achieving greater efficiency


In their review of Jamaica's performance under the standby agreement, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) urged the Government to accelerate its public-sector salary negotiations, bearing in mind its undertaking to reduce its wage bill to nine per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). It now hovers at 10 per cent of GDP.

"More fundamentally, reforms to a large and inefficient public sector cannot be delayed any further," the IMF's mission chief, Uma Ramakrishnan, said in a post-review statement. "Achieving greater efficiency requires a scaleback of the roles, responsibilities and overall size of the public sector. Strengthening the procurement process would also ensure a timely execution of capital projects."

The remark suggests the IMF's growing frustration with the pace at which Jamaica has pursued this element of the reform project, despite the country's strong showing on most quantitative benchmarks. So, the Fund is striking the whip.

But public-sector reform, or transformation, as it is more commonly referred to in the agreement, can't, and is not contemplated to be only about reducing the wage bill. Its core must be the (re)creation of a skilled bureaucracy that facilitates the private sector in its delivery of investment, job creation and growth, while efficiently managing public goods.


People of that ilk


In other words, the call is for a public service with people of the ilk of Herbert Walker and other giants of the past, such as G. Arthur Brown, Horace Barber, Don Mills and Shirley Tyndall. The reconstruction, if it happens, will demand a smaller, talented, well-trained and better-paid bureaucracy. But equally important will be how that bureaucracy interfaces with the policymakers. The transformation, therefore, rests not only with the permanent civil service, but also on their political masters.

Public-sector inefficiency, which so exercised Ms Ramakrishnan, is, in large part, the symptom of the encroachment on, and in many instances usurpation of, the roles of the permanent bureaucracy by the political leaders of ministries in pursuance of corruption and patronage. A less sturdy breed of public servants acquiesced.

If Prime Minister Andrew Holness is serious about delivering on this structural benchmark, he must be prepared to stake his premiership on running a government that is intolerant of corruption. That must be evident to everyone. He must ensure, too, that the public-sector leadership, as Mr Patterson said of Herbert Walker, "recruits the brightest and the best" and insists on their delivery of "the highest standards of performance".