Martin Henry | Fixing the public service
Who made that telephone call? That months-late call from the Ministry of Finance to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions the same day the director publicly and bitterly complained about the lack of response to filling staff vacancies that had been approved by Cabinet in her departmental budget?
Who signed that letter giving the go-ahead for recruitment that was delivered the very next day?
I am not asking these questions with the expectation of a public answer or to scapegoat anybody, but to underscore the point that it is real flesh-and-blood human beings who act or fail to act in the delivery of service by the public service.
Helene Davis-Whyte, who now heads the umbrella Joint Confederation of Trade Unions, was on air mounting the expected knee-jerk defence by the unions about the need to fix policies and procedures for the angels of the public service to do their jobs better. What policy or procedure, I ask, was fixed in the 24-hour period between the DPP's public venting and a letter being dispatched to provide the recruitment go-ahead? I am naming names because fixing the human problem of the public service is going to be as important, perhaps more important than fixing policies, procedures and resources in fixing the public service.
The prime minister has fired off about an impending Cabinet reshuffle. We have good reason to forget that there is a Ministry of the Public Service buried as it has long been in the crevices of Finance. For some brief periods, the Ministry of the Public Service has had independent existence like the time when Howard Cooke headed it at one point in the first Michael Manley administration. Mr Manley's current successor, Dr Peter Phillips, leader of the Opposition, has tucked the public service under the Office of the Leader of the Opposition to be led by trade unionist, Senator Lambert Brown, in his brand-new Cabinet-in-waiting.
It is people who get things done. Or block getting things done. Rudyard Spencer has been appointed by the prime minister as the minister of state for the public service. The ministry, both under Mr Spencer and his many predecessors across many administrations, has mostly busied itself with labour negotiations with a battalion of public-sector trade unions and other unions with public-service workers among their clientele in two-year spasms.
Meanwhile, public-sector reform and transformation have been riding the treadmill since Edward Seaga's Administrative Reform Programme of the 1980s. The current Public Sector Transformation Programme has been running since Prime Minister P.J. Patterson launched it as Public Sector Modernisation, round about '94. That's 23 years now. And what has it delivered by way of deep, lasting and systemic transformation of the service in quality, efficiency, and costs?
In September 2017, the Internatinal Monetary Fund (IMF) mission chief here, Uma Ramakrishnan, was telling the Government that "the reforms to the large and inefficient public sector in Jamaica cannot be delayed much further". The IMF has zeroed in on "the inequitable system of allowances in the public sector". Why can the IMF, an external agency, see that one-third of the Government's wage bill spent on 174 different types of allowances inequitably distributed across 10 employee groups and amounting to three per cent of GDP is untenable and is destructive to public-sector reform and there has out been a peep out of the Government that provided the data for that analysis?
The IMF has been pushing for the wage bill to be reduced to no more than nine per cent of GDP. The Government has been dragging its wobbly feet. And this is not just about chopping jobs. Reducing the wage burden, the IMF says, "should be done with a view to increasing public-sector productivity and efficiency, including by scaling back the roles and responsibilities as well as the size of the public sector and reducing the wage bill in order to release resources for much-needed growth-enhancing spending".
We saw last week the power of the tail to wag the weak-kneed dog as we watched Minister of Justice Delroy Chuck crawling on hands and knees to the Supreme Court to apologise to staff of the Divorce Unit. The minister had a "thick file" of uncontested evidence of fraudulent divorces, indicating a corrupting of the system at some point. The staff took offence at the minister's stating of this obvious fact, staged a sit-in, and would only go back to work if the minister apologised for his "unfair" comments, which they said painted them in a bad light.
Prime Minister Andrew Holness says he wants public-sector reform, he is "committed" to it like the prime ministers before him. The prime minister neither needs the do-it-yourself approach that he's taken for economic growth and job creation and for crime-fighting through zones of special operations, nor a 100-person committee. Managerially, he needs a ministerial czar to get the job done.
Mr Spencer, or his successor in the reshuffle, should be tasked in leading fundamental reforms of the system around clear targets over the next 24 months or be prepared to exit the job through one door or another.
There are 15 key players to get that job done, or be prepared to walk. Last week was Right to Know (RTK) Week. One thing I got to know based on the RTK messages in the supplement in the newspapers is that Derrick Smith, 'minister without portfolio' in the elephantine Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, does, in fact, have portfolio responsibility for the Access to Information Act and Unit.
How in heaven's name is this not the responsibility of the minister of information? Just like how the Ministry of the Public Service has been allowed to atrophy, so the Ministry of Information has been corrupted in function. The minister, rather than being the Cabinet overseer of the portfolio of laws and departments and agencies of Government having to do with information, has become the chief spokesperson for the dissemination of public information.
The Government needs a Jamaica House press secretary equivalent to the White House press secretary. The last time this was done, in my recollection, was in the second Manley administration when the prime minister/OPM had a press secretary, Lincoln Robinson, separate from the policy, plans and programmes minister, Dr Paul Robertson.
Access to information is a lot more than the media seeking state documents on ministers' phone bills and travel expenses. Citizens have a right to know how their government works, who is in charge of what, and what to expect of each department and agency. Those 14 people in the shadows on whom viable public-sector transformation absolutely depends are the permanent secretaries of the ministries. These are the chief executive officers of public administration. Jamaica needs to know and understand how little a minister can actually get done without their PS.
For information, here are the 15 holders of the keys to transforming the public service:
- Office of the Prime Minister - Douglas Saunders, Cabinet secretary and head of the public service
- Economic Growth and Job Creation - Audrey Sewell
- Finance and Public Service - Darlene Morisson ( acting financial secretary)
- Foreign Affairs & Foreign Trade - Marcia Gilbert-Roberts
- Industry, Commerce, Agriculture & Fisheries - Donovan Stanberry
- National Security - Dianne McIntosh
- Justice - Carol Palmer
- Education, Youth and Information - Dean-Roy Bernard
- Energy, Science & Technology - Hillary Alexander
- Local Government and Community Development - Denzil Thorpe
- Transport & Mining - Alwin Hales
- Tourism - Jennifer Griffith
- Health - Sancia Bennett Templer
- Labour and Social Security - Colette Roberts Risden
- Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sports - Janice Lindsay
In a proper management system, implementation will cascade from the office of the CEO through a responsible and accountable chain of command to the clerk at the base, with clear and predictable rewards and sanctions based on real and measurable performance. That's how it is done in profitable and sustainable private enterprises.
Fitz Jackson, with the bitter cup pressed upon him to be minister-in-waiting for national security, says he is going off to consult with the leadership of the security forces and other stakeholders and he will be asking them what they need to get their jobs done. The Government at the level of the public-sector transformation ministerial czar must proceed to demand of the 15 chiefs of operations in the ministries what they need to get their jobs done, within the constraints upon the State. These needs lists should not be public.
The Government must also make clear, concrete, specific performance and delivery demands upon these leaders of the public sector as a condition for continuing to hold these powerful make-or-break jobs.
Government can reduce the public-sector wage bill while driving increased efficiency and performance by tried and tested strategies: Simply cut the budgetary allocations for compensation by the percentage amounts required to get down to the required sub-nine per cent of GDP, with some adjustments by priorities, and leave it to the line managers to best work out how the cut will flow through their system while protecting set performance targets.
One supremely desirable result of this approach is that there would be a massive job-protection performance stimulus flowing through the system and creative ideas for savings and improvements would well up from the base.
The public service can be fixed, but politicians and task forces alone can't do it while civil servants continue to behave as they have done at Finance and the Supreme Court.