Martin Henry | Daryl Vaz is not the answer
There is nothing at all "unfortunate" about William Mahfood's comment that the country needs a system, not a "go-to" guy, however good, to get investment hurdles removed and to get something done.
Mahfood, in an exit interview as a very vocal president of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ), had said the country seriously needs to create a proper mechanism to minimise obstacles to investment and having to resort to calling the de facto Economic Growth Minister Daryl Vaz to get things done was not a system.
"Right now," he said then, "if you need to get something done, people tell you you can call Daryl, or you can do this - that is not a system ... . You have to put in place processes."
Mr Mahfood heads a major firm, Wisynco, now in reconstruction mode after a major warehouse fire. Vaz, too, knows business from personal entrepreneurship and family history, like Mahfood.
For some odd reason, the president of the sister business organisation, the Jamaica Manufacturers' Association, which is also a member of the umbrella PSOJ, Metry Seaga, has found Mahfood's frank statement of fact offensive and "unfortunate". Seaga presides over a manufacturing sector that has withered away under successive government administrations, part of the problem being lack of system.
We'd better take Mr Mahfood's comment seriously if this country is to leap forward rather than creep forward inch by inch and often enough going backwards instead. This personality-driven country lacks systems with known, predictable and efficient procedures and processes in almost every area, not just investments. In every area of life, our cultivated instinct, honed by long experience, is to call up the person who holds the keys to get things done and to seek a personal favour delivered around and outside whatever dysfunctional system we prefer not to fight with.
RECIPE FOR CORRUPTION
The results are obvious: bottlenecks, cronyism, corruption, patronage - and vast inefficiency. With land, environment, climate change, and economic growth under his belt, how many calls can Daryl take as a single human being, however able and willing? Insiders with access to the 'hotline' will always get ahead.
Mr Vaz, coming to the task of providing political leadership for the critical growth portfolio with a strong track record of getting things done and for operating an open-door policy, seems himself a little peeved with Mahfood's comment. The minister told this newspaper that he would not allow himself to be sidetracked from the task he had been given.
"At this point in time, ... I am just focusing on devoting my energies [to] the task at hand. I am focusing on the big projects that can bring growth and create employment for the Jamaican people. When we said we were serious about creating growth, we are serious. I know what the task is, and clearly, the prime minister has confidence in my abilities to get it done ... . I will get it done."
Nice polspeak. But where's the system? Clean, coherent, predictable, easy to access and use, and efficient? Process, not personality.
Glen Christian, who has built the Cari-Med conglomerate with productive and efficient business processes in a weak economy and chaotic country, attempts to soothe. He did not believe, he said, that Mr Mahfood's comments were meant to be a personal attack on Minister Vaz. Clearly not. Mahfood laid out specific recommendations for a public-private partnership to streamline systems for the smooth management of investments.
"I think Mr Mahfood was expressing his frustration with the system and a general investment climate where approvals for buildings, for example, take forever. I think Jamaica would do well with 10 more Daryl Vazes and a friendlier and more efficient investment apparatus," Christian told The Sunday Gleaner.
I differ on the need for more Vazes. One running a clean and efficient system is enough. No one disputes the need for a good driver, as Metry Seaga seems to mistakenly think. But what is it that a political driver properly ought to be doing?
Minister Vaz says the people of Jamaica took up the offer of the party prior to the election and gave them a chance to carry out what they said they would. At the very top of the winning 10-Point Plan in the Partnership for Prosperity was the promise to "reform government for efficiency" and, specifically, as part of creating "a consolidated Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation".
So I have three system-analysis test questions for Minister Vaz, and more so for his boss. Can you pull out of your back pocket, or more likely pull up on the screen of your tablet: (i) a simple flow chart of the steps to move an investment project through the bureaucracy of public administration and get it up and running? (ii) A map of the investment and growth agencies of the public service showing which does what and how they interrelate? (ii) A list of the key managers in the public service who have been tasked with driving investment, economic growth, and job creation as their job in public administration?
The pledge to reform government for efficiency is really about improving public administration in structures, systems and procedures and not about the political side of government, like who is minister or the creation of complicated new mega-ministries. And, at best, the highly touted Economic Growth Council is only a body of expert advisers and not an executive ops unit. At worse, attached to the political leadership and if cut off from the public service, it could end up being a big hindrance to the development and operations of an effective and efficient administrative system. We should carefully check to see how Mr Lee-Chin actually runs his own business empire and how Nigel Clarke manages at Mussons.
Mr Mahfood is leading after-fire reconstruction at Wisynco as chairman of the group of companies. There's a chief executive officer for executive action on the ground. Almost certainly, the rebuilding efforts have been projectised (that's how the private sector does it), and there's a project manager with a great deal of latitude to get the job done within the vision and policy framework set by the board and its chairman. We've seen no such clean, coherent and efficient operational structure and process emerging out of the mega-ministry for growth. And Mr Mahfood is calling for it. I join him, and extend the call across Government on the public-service side.
Audley Shaw, the minister for the public service, told Parliament last week that he would be submitting to Cabinet by month end a time-bound action plan for public-sector transformation to improve efficiency. We'll see. We've been at this at least since the 1980s with the Administrative Reform Programme (ARP) of the Edward Seaga Government.
The weakness of system that forces a reliance on go-to people to get things done is not a minor matter, a Mahfood peeve. It is a fundamental problem of development and a great differentiator between Third World and First world.
When systems operate by personalities holding power and granting favours through special access, there's bound to be corruption seeping in. This is not any attack upon Mr Vaz's character. It's just a statement of fact from someone committed to reducing corruption in governance and in the country in general. Transparent, rules-bound systems with blind, equitable access and with very limited discretionary powers by operatives are one of the most powerful checks upon corruption.
William Mahfood is right: Calling Daryl is not a system. Rather than encouraging going to any Mr Fix-It, we should focus on fixing systems and on building public trust in them.