To answer Kelly Tomblin, CEO of the Jamaica Public Service Company (JPS), Jamaicans want both: affordable electricity and good customer service. Ms Tomblin, assuming she survives in the job, has her work cut out for her. The first will require, among other things, heavy investment in plant and equipment; the second means reversing a culture in which the light and power company is deeply calcified.
We sense, however, that she is giving it a go, at least on the matter of customer service, an area where the boss has greater influence and his or her management initiatives a discernible difference in a relatively short time. We, therefore, watch for the difference Ms Tomblin's much-publicised recent appointment of regional managers will make to the company.
a drag on Jamaica's economy
But even if Ms Tomblin is successful in getting her staff to explain our outsize electricity bills with great courtesy and empathy, that won't change the fact that the cost of power is a drag on Jamaica's economy. And a shift is not entirely in the gift of either Ms Tomblin or the owners of JPS. It depends, too, on the environment established by the Government for firms to do business.
This is important. For without telling anyone about it, not least the light and power company, Jamaican governments shunted a significant bit of their social welfare programme to JPS. That is, they have created an environment in which electricity theft is widespread and almost tolerated.
The level to which our governments have abrogated their responsibility on this front, that is, their failure to maintain law and order, is captured in two recent bits of public information.
In September, Ms Tomblin noted that around 14 per cent of the electricity generated by JPS annually is stolen. The bill for this in the first nine months of the year was US$30 million, or J$2.7 billion. Legitimate consumers pay a large portion of this bill.
much is amiss
Should we question the veracity of the JPS and the quality of its analysis, the findings of the recently released census confirm that much is amiss. More than 805,000, or more than 91 per cent of the island's households, reported that they used electricity for lighting. That is 200,000, or one-third more than the JPS has customers.
That, in any circumstance, is a high level of illegal connections, the greater proportion of which are in inner-city communities, although they do not account for all the electricity stolen. Indeed, power theft also occurs among more affluent groups.
Poverty is the easy excuse for the level of theft in inner-city communities. Except that the first 200 kilowatt-hours of electricity that is billed - a scheme especially fashioned for poor consumers who are expected to use relatively little power - is at a rate substantially lower than the next scale up. The point is, there is an intended cushion for the poorest users, to which all consumers contribute by paying.
Yet, the high incidence of theft continues. In normal societies, the thieves would be disconnected. But the failure of security in many communities limits the ability of the company to act, or to invest in expensive deterrence.
Electricity theft, therefore, has evolved, in many communities, into a sense of entitlement, with the tacit acknowledgement, if not tacit approval, of the Government.
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