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Deliberate steps necessary to curb public-sector waste - Foster-Allen

Published:Sunday | November 27, 2016 | 12:00 AMRyon Jones
Elaine Foster-Allen

With public sector modernisation in the air, Elaine Foster-Allen, who served as permanent secretary (PS) in three different ministries and is now retiring from public service, feels that deliberate steps need to be taken to remedy public-sector waste.

Last week, Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced a new Public Sector Transforma-tion Oversight Committee co-chaired by head of the Hugh Lawson Shearer Trade Union Institute and trade unionist, Danny Roberts, and Cabinet secretary, Ambassador Douglas Saunders.

The formation of the new committee comes on the heels of research findings released by the Jamaica Civil Society Coalition and the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition, which deemed that waste inefficiency and gross non-compliance by government ministries and departments have cost Jamaicans more than $6 billion between 2009 and 2012.

"I can see where there is waste and there are things that we could be doing and should be doing," said Foster-Allen, who served as PS in the Ministry of Education, Office of the Prime Minister, and most recently, the Ministry of Health before retiring.

"Utilities, for example. We find sometimes that the ministries are supporting communities, so you have community light and community water, and I think sometimes there is inefficiency."




She also believes more care must be taken in employing people to the various ministries, as too many come in without the requisite qualifications and, therefore, not able to properly undertake the job at hand.

"Part of the problem we have with the public sector, especially at the level of the ministries, is that we have too many people who really do not fit. We need to get the people with the qualifications to do the job we require them to do," Foster-Allen shared with The Sunday Gleaner in her exit interview.

"People often come to the ministries on the basis of just wanting a job, and not necessarily looking a career. They come in having not gotten all the qualifications, and they stay and learn on the job and eventually get promoted through the system."

She noted that while it was good that persons were being provided with jobs, it could not be at the expense of quality service to the public.

The former principal of the Shortwood Teachers' College also pointed out that eliminating some nugatory investments and making other minor adjustments would go a far way in saving the country money in the long run.

"We have a problem with maintenance in the public sector. We also have a problem with finishing things we have started in a timely manner. If we have old equipment that's breaking down every so often, you won't get the work done and you are going to waste people's money," Foster-Allen said.

"I also think if we just had some standard operating procedures in place, we could cut out a lot of the wasting of time and the public would be better served."

Foster-Allen, who served in varying capacities across the education sector both locally and in the United Kingdom, where she was an inspector attached to Her Majesty's inspectorate, and was the first black woman to become principal of a school in Birmingham, said she was surprised by what she found when she took up the post of PS in the Ministry of Education in 2013.

"At the Ministry of Education, I was very involved in modernising the ministry; there were people working without job descriptions for years. Job descriptions were written and we put the performance management system in place," Foster-Allen said.

During her tenure there, she worked with the Reverend Ronald Thwaites, who she described as the most difficult minister and nicknamed Uncle Pharaoh, as he would demand things to be done immediately.

She, however, found her tenure at the Office of the Prime Minister, which ran from November 2015 to August 2016, as the most challenging because although she "had worked in administration for quite a long time, this was administration at a different level.

"Maybe the most challenging time for me over the past four years in the civil service was managing the transition from one administration to another because, unfortunately, I think I felt a little uneasy that people may think that I am aligned to one administration and not another," she shared.

Foster-Allen, who will celebrate her 63rd birthday next Sunday, is currently on two weeks pre-retirement leave, and upon her return from overseas, plans on doing some more missionary work, gardening, completing writing her book and doing more travelling.