Sat | Jan 29, 2022

Editorial | Job descriptions for new ministers

Published:Monday | January 10, 2022 | 12:06 AM

Since Prime Minister Andrew Holness confirmed just before Christmas his intention to reorganise the Government in the new year, it has become a national guessing game as to who is likely to be chucked out of the Cabinet, and who will be in. That is expected.

But while the outcomes in some portfolios are obvious, thus driving public perception of their ministers, it is often not so clear with others. And there is little information on the criteria to be used by the prime minister for his decisions. This, of course, is not unique to Mr Holness. Prime ministers, in shaping their Cabinets, do not have to account for their actions, once they abide by the limits set by the Constitution. The Cabinet must have at least 11 members, up to four of whom can be appointed from the Senate.

This time, though, Mr Holness should approach matters differently. It is too late with respect to the ministers who will be fired, for which he is unlikely to give reasons (or at least the real one) for their reassignment or dismissals. The public will have to guess at that.

We should, however, be told the basis on which the new ones are being hired, what precisely is expected of them, and the timelines within which they must deliver. Mr Holness, in other words, must employ modern management tools in evaluating the performance of ministers, which must start with a declaration of their deliverables.

The only publicly available guide for how Jamaican ministers should approach their jobs is a 2002 document by the Patterson government, providing a broad framework for ministerial conduct in the context of collective responsibility, the need for personal integrity, and the relationship between ministers and civil servants. While broad policies tend to be announced, rarely do prime ministers set out, in detail and in public, what they expect of ministers, and the basis or frequency of performance assessments.

Mr Holness undertook to change that. In the campaign for the 2016 general election, when his Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) was the Opposition, he promised that ministers in a government he leads would have specific job descriptions, which would inform their periodic evaluations. The JLP won the election.

A year later, in February 2017, there were no job descriptions. But marking his first anniversary in office, Mr Holness told reporters: “The job descriptions are actually being prepared.”

He added: “After one year, the ministers are settled in ... and I have been evaluating each and every one. The challenge that I had is that we started in a year where they couldn’t really say they had the opportunity to plan out that year’s programme.”

Assuming that was a reasonable explanation, the administration went on to serve another three years, until Mr Holness called the general election for September 2020. His party won again.

NOT DELIVERED ON OLD PROMISE

It is now more than 15 months into the administration’s new term. Yet, the prime minister has not delivered on his old promise for job descriptions, although he often speaks about the accountability of his government. He should say whether he has abandoned the idea, and if so, why.

There are several reasons why job descriptions would make sense, and perhaps counter-intuitively for a politician, why they would help the prime minister. Indeed, in-between its successes the administration often touts, it has faced myriad scandals involving ministers and bureaucrats. It has had its fair share of policy failures. Ministers have had to resign. Some have lost aspects of their portfolios. Usually, these changes come after outside agitation and with political stress for the prime minister.

Job descriptions would not have necessarily avoided these problems. However, having clear, objectively measured deliverables and a transparent system of evaluation would better inform the public’s judgement of policy outcomes, and probably help to temper some of the untoward behaviours that ministers get up to, or condone. It would also help to build trust in the Government. And prime ministers would have greater leverage – both internally and with the public – when they act against ministerial colleagues, including those with perceived strong political bases.

There would be another potentially positive spin-off from this process of public accountability: improved efficiency in the public bureaucracy. While ministers are in charge of policy, how policy translates into specific actions and outcomes depend, to a significant degree, on the performance of the permanent civil service. In this regard, periodic and public reporting on the evaluations of ministers, using empirical values, would provide greater incentive for ministers to drive for improved competence and efficiency in the public sector.

Prime Minister Holness will acknowledge that six years is quite a long time for the drafting of two dozen or so job descriptions. There is, however, still value in getting them done, and making public the matrix that will be used to evaluate ministers. Indeed, other professions have found these systems to be worthwhile tools of management. They help to enhance performance and efficiency. Politicians should strive for no less.