A bold approach to unlocking investment for jobs, growth

Published: Thursday | December 5, 2013 Comments 0
The Ministry of Finance at National Heroes Circle, Kingston. - File
The Ministry of Finance at National Heroes Circle, Kingston. - File

Peter Melhado, Contributor

A frequent observation by many is that things take a very long time to happen in Jamaica, whether it be getting a governmental approval, passing a law, reforming a particular system or even doing a business acquisition (no Government to blame here). It has been this way for so long that we have acclimatised as a people, and despite the occasional outburst of frustration (which quickly fades into obscurity), our evolution is so advanced that we now take this malaise for granted. It is a truism; change crusaders are considered na´ve and out of touch.

The hidden (and very dangerous) assumption is that we have survived this long (and it's been this way a very long time) and, therefore, we will continue to keep our head above water. This popular form of resignation assumes ceteris paribus; that all things outside of this paradigm will continue to be as they are. Here is the danger: We ignore the widening gap between what pertains in developed countries and our reality in Jamaica around the speed of business.

This is not to say that the Government is sitting on its hands. In recent times, we have seen some important steps towards modernisa-tion, including many public services being brought online and a significant tax-reform programme in the offing, to name just a few. It's just that on the ground, there still remain too many barriers to move at the velocity required for a modern economy.

I have had a coincidental set of experiences that have reinforced this danger of 'soon come' in stark terms. My employer (ICD Group) has spent two years pursuing the development of a piece of land in Greater Portmore that would employ more than 200 people over 18 months and inject $1.2 billion into the economy, plus creating future jobs in custodial and building maintenance. While sparing the reader the gory details, it has been a thoroughly frustrating and quite frankly, baffling experience. I am sure there are many readers from this industry who have had similar experiences, so I do not count our company as unique; in fact, it is depressing that we are far from it.

On the other hand, we have just completed an acquisition of 50 per cent of a Canadian call-centre company, and despite ICD being a foreign investor, the entire process took less than three weeks, with the various regulatory arms of that country's government assisting the process at every turn. Is it that Canada has superior systems and processes for getting business done? While the answer may be yes, what caught my attention was far removed from the process; it was the public service mindset of 'we exist to serve businesses'. I believe our attitude is more 'we exist to enforce the rules' and this nuance makes a world of difference to an investor. It should be noted that we now have a call centre up and running in Kingston employing over 60 people; jobs that would not be here right now if the approval process was protracted.

Efficiency wanted

Here is my central point; I genuinely do believe that the key governmental actors in Jamaica want to see business done efficiently. I dare say the issue is that they do not want it badly enough to ensure nothing stands in the way of it happening. If they did, I posit that our project in Greater Portmore that has the blessing of all of the statutory agencies save the local council, would have happened within less than three months. In fact, establishing our free-zone status for the call centre was painless and quick, a refreshing experience, especially when compared to our other project. Unfortunately, though, our Government usually faces layers of resistance to speed of process; cutting through the attendant barriers requires effort and focus, which often take a backseat to more traditional elements of governance.

The intention here is not to harp on our deficiencies, but rather to suggest that the Government adopts an expedient approach to the problem. If a company faced an issue where speed to market was a congenital problem, the management would appoint a person or team, arm them with powers that cut through the company's red tape, while ensuring that they did nothing deleterious to the entity's products/reputation in the process. If this team ran aground at any point, the CEO (the parallel case being the prime minister) would intervene directly to unblock the channel and get things rolling again (after all, we are a small country and a personal touch is possible).

Frankly speaking, with few exceptions, relying on a governmental process to do business simply takes too long. If there is a situation that falls outside the prescribed policy norms, the potential for delay extrapolates exponentially, as there is no single actor that can deliver a negotiated solution. The last JLP government seemed to recognise this and set up a 'one-stop shop', a channel that many businesses (my company included) used to move things through the system. I do not cite this example in a political context, but rather to demonstrate the feasibility of such an approach, one that can be built on to deliver an even more compelling solution.

If it can be agreed that systemic reform is too long in coming (and I think Jamaica has proven that case), I believe this bold, if unoriginal approach, is our only option. It will take some courage and persistence from our leaders and it will send a signal that we (the country, through its leadership) view time as a precious commodity; as critical to growth as capital investment is. It will also, to my mind, energise our entrepreneurs and force them to accept that we are all here to do business now because Jamaica cannot wait one more day.

As I have seen throughout my business career, when management takes a stand that enough is enough and creates an efficient change mechanism, the new context of 'we can do it' injects life into reform programmes that seemed so difficult in the old construct. Real and sustainable change then occurs. I am willing to do anything in my power to see this 'action revolution' take place in Jamaica, land we love. After all, I know we can do it!

Peter Melhado is a businessman. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com or peter.melhado@gmail.com.

 

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