Fri | Nov 17, 2017

Ronald Thwaites | Getting radical

Published:Monday | October 16, 2017 | 12:00 AM

There is a motion on the Order Paper of the House of Representatives that calls for the gradual introduction of a system of zero budgeting, starting with the Budget for the next fiscal year, which is now being drafted.

Zero budgeting would require that every item of expenditure in the big yellow book would start off with nil dollars and there would be a careful assessment of the continuing need for that function and a scrutiny of the efficiency of those accountable for carrying it out.

So if there is no need for multiples of public relations personnel in a particular public transport corporation while there are too few highly trained mechanics, the misallocation of resources would be corrected and the tax dollars applied accordingly.

And it would disclose and create the imperative to correct the system of overstaffing and guaranteed pay for hours, even when there is no work.

Then, too, the careful inquiry attendant on having to build a case of efficiency to gain a required allocation would ensure the rebalancing of that school budget that accomodates more than a dozen guidance counsellors and only five teachers of mathematics.

Zero budgeting should be an essential element of any serious process of public-sector reform. But so far, there has been no sign of this happening. Before long, we the taxpayers will be promised out by our Government to pay out more of our money without any commitment to greater output and maximum efficiency.

And add to that the 2.5 per cent so-called performance increase given to public servants annually and so compounded yearly thereafter. This is a farce played on the taxpayers with the complicity of Government, because the evaluation of excellent and satisfactory performance is uniformly higher than 90 per cent and the increment virtually automatic.

 

NO GREAT POWER

 

The public thinks that ministers of government have great power over what goes into the national Budget. They really do not. The vast majority of the exercise is carried out by bureaucrats whose primary intent is to keep things going as they have been, leaving very little for expenditure on new or discretionary programmes.

Most of the grand announcements you hear of involve juggling largely unexamined allotments that have considerable fat embedded in them.

Zero budgeting would curtail most of such practices and, if connected with a system of accounting in government on an accrual rather than a cash basis, would add considerably to public accountability and to our capacity to demand careful and effective spending.

Billions would be saved. My guesstimate is up to 20 per cent of the whole Budget if the process were thorough. Imagine if such money were realised and made available for growth-inducing capital expenditure and even for real, rather than deceitful, give-backs to those from whose pockets the dollars had been taken in the first place.

But who has the stomach for the political indigestion which would inevitably follow the introduction of zero budgeting? I predict it will not happen unless the motion proposing it is ventilated in Parliament as a spur for the public to better identify how much waste in government is cramping growth and employment, and to insist on a state apparatus that works for all and not just for some.

Th second motion has some connection with the first, in that far-reaching change in our political economy cannot take place in the chronically divisive climate that afflicts the country and is routinely played out in Gordon House, to the disgust and embarrassment of those who want to move Jamaica forward.

The proposal is to reconfigure the seating in Parliament, to abolish the aisle, and to have us sit in a semicircle with seats alloted alphabetically or otherwise, but not by political affiliation.

You would likely think better of, and behave better towards, the person to the right or left of you if you were not glowering at him or her across the no-man's land of an aisle of a chamber that should look and function like everyman's land.

Be puckish and put the prime minister and the leader of the opposition to sit beside each other!

The problems of this nation are at once so deep-seated and at the same time so solveable that, at the very least, there needs to be erased, not least in the minds of the MPs themselves, the perception, the optics that become the reality, that we are two warring clans.

I am hoping that the House leader will allow time for debate of these two motions before the end of the year.

 

EPILOGUE

 

The late Marjorie Taylor lived her life as an accomplished political activist and an admirable public servant. Her proud working-class background nurtured a deep understanding and compassion for anyone in need. She deserves to be mourned. Michael will welcome her in heaven!

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