Tue | Dec 12, 2017

Ronald Thwaites | Afraid to act

Published:Monday | October 2, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Last Tuesday in Parliament, it was time for Finance and Public Service Minister Audley Shaw to answer my questions on the pace, direction and objectives of public-sector reform.

The questions were asked to provoke discourse on a matter about which successive administrations have been afraid to act. For while paying tribute to the many exemplary public servants, my observation is that the service is bloated by at least 20 per cent and that the terms and conditions of employment are rigid and unserviceable to the task of facilitating a modern competitive state.

It turns out that there really is no plan as to how the reform is going to take place. It is still in the drafting stage, without any timetable or any assurance if, or when, the public will be appraised, let alone have a say.

This is not good government. A bureaucracy cannot be left alone to reform itself, and that is exactly what appears to be happening, albeit at snail's pace.

So we are about to be asked to pay billions more in increased wages for an unreformed government apparatus and no clear vision of the size and scope of state functions best suited to move Jamaica forward - all of us; not just the minority who thrive on the status quo.

This is irresponsible. No business or household could run like that.

I asked the minister what provisions were being made in the course of general public-sector reform, and specifically in the current wage negotiations, to enjoin higher levels of labour and total factor productivity. His reply was a weak promise that the languishing and often-ignored (my words) Productivity Centre would be strengthened.

 

CULTURE CHANGE

 

But he knows better. In further questioning, Mr Shaw acknowledged the need for a culture change towards greater productivity of both labour and capital as the indispensable foundations of sustainable development.

And it is not just a matter of labourers and clerical workers doing more. That is only part of it. The Jamaican financial sector has declining levels of productivity also.

This administration and the next one are going to fail the people's test unless we the politicians combine long enough to garner the insight and courage to approach the nation with a strategy to reverse low productivity without regard to the short-term political fallout.

How much more evidence do we need after the Statistical Institute has told us over the weekend that the Jamaican economy has declined for the first two quarters of this financial year? Whatever the excuses, isn't that the definition of a recession?

How long are we going go be afraid to act?

Later in the session, Prime Minister Holness reported on the progress of the first batch of unattached young persons who have begun to receive military training. Deserved praise must be given to Colonel Martin Rickman and the Jamaica Defence Force for beginning the redemption of more than 200 young men. I watched them drilling one morning at Newcastle and was impressed at how efficiently disordered tendencies can be transformed into disciplined behaviour.

These cadets go on to a further eight months of training and demanding work. Few, if any of them, will veer into criminal gangs or dissolute life. This is how you build national security.

I am told that it costs in the region of $200,000 to train a cadet to the point where he is useful to himself and becomes an asset for the society. Compare the cost efficiency with the price - over about $1 million a year - to lock up and further denigrate the same individual if left on the street corner.

 

MANDATORY PROGRAMMES

 

Andrew Holness says he agrees that effective programmes for unattached young people should be mandatory but hitches when it comes to finding the money. So we want to pat ourselves on the back for dealing with 1,000 out of probably 150,000 vulnerable youth in this financial year.

At that rate, the Last Judgement is likely to come before we finish with the existing troubled cohort, let alone account for the seepage from the unnecessarily porous school system each year!

If we are serious about human development and the reduction of the violence that is spilling so much blood, wasting national morale and forfeiting more than $100 billion of revenue every year, we must find the money, starting in this month's supplementary estimates, to train and resocialise at least 20,000 annually.

It would be criminal if, instead of this, our money is used to lather South East St Mary in political graft.

Prime Minister, since you confirm that you know what works, please stop being afraid to act.

- Ronald Thwaites is member of parliament for Kingston Central and opposition spokesman on education and training. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.