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The poison of patronage

Published:Friday | November 27, 2015 | 12:00 AMGlenn Tucker, Contributor
Dr Alfred Dawes, immediate past president, Jamaica Medical Doctors Association, has hit out against the trend of political appointments.
Glenn Tucker

When I was a child growing up in Brown's Town, St Ann, my closest neighbour was Baron Morris. Last year, Baron and his wife visited Jamaica. He was travelling in the country when he had some cardiac complications and was admitted to a rural hospital. Conditions were very unsatisfactory.

Fortunately, another childhood friend, Doug Halsall, had a helicopter there in a jiffy. Baron was taken to a private hospital in Kingston. I think that saved his life. Baron was so concerned about conditions at that rural hospital, he indicated his willingness to help improve conditions there. He has been trying since last year, but no one is paying him any mind.

I have mentioned this to a few persons and am surprised that no one seems to be surprised. They speak of cases where Jamaicans living abroad have tried to make educational material and medical supplies available to the Jamaican people and these items have either disappeared or are rotting on the wharves. Teams of medical specialists who are prepared to use their vacation time to treat Jamaicans - free of cost - have heard of the Jamaican bureaucracy and have sent their equipment and supplies months ahead of their arrival time and some still have to return home unfulfilled, because they were not allowed to clear these items from the wharf.

Recently, a grateful nation has started to voice its appreciation to Dr Alfred Dawes. This doctor - immediate past president of the Jamaica Medical Doctors Association - has made some worrying revelations about public health conditions in Jamaica. We are learning that ours is not just a problem with some dead babies. Persons of all ages are dying because of the awful condition of our health service.

Dr Dawes speaks of "feudal lords, who tighten the screws on whistle-blowers and whitewash reports going to the top and who are more concerned about keeping up appearances rather than addressing the ills of the sector".

He bemoans the fact that the entire public sector is "rife with too many persons holding office based on political appointments and promotions rather than merit", and this has led to a governance issue in the Ministry of Health where "the decision makers and those who implement policies are not necessarily the best at what they do, nor do they put the country above those of the party". As he sees it, "it's all about politics".

This brings into sharp focus the crippling, debilitating effects of patronage appointments in the public sector. This problem is so troubling and costly, it has occupied the minds of intellectuals the world over. Some who have researched and written extensively about it include Remmer (1970), Diamond (1998), Fox (1994), Lewis (2007). I mention these because their research findings mirror the effects of patronage appointments I observe in Jamaica. Since their findings are the result of empirical research, I think the public would prefer to hear from them.

Lewis, whose publication in 2007, after research on US federal agencies, emphasises that programmes administered by political appointees systematically get lower evaluations than programmes run by career bureaucrats. There are four categories that are particularly affected by patronage appointments: political consequences, institutional consequences, consequences on social policies, and consequences on economic development.

Political appointments, it was revealed, are used by politicians to boost their support. In these politicised bureaucracies, party interests shape policy choices. There is electoral manipulation with a clear advantage to the incumbent as administrative resources and public institutions are used as their private tools.

They speak of a defective political system that does not transform political inputs into outputs and a fragmented society in which you are either 'ours' or 'against us'. Eventually, all that results is mistrust in public institutions. These researchers see patronage as "a distasteful form of governance fundamentally antithetical to democratic rule".

In systems where patronage appointment is practised, politicians do not pay much attention to qualifications and knowledge. Appointed executives do not meet the required skill levels. The result is that public policies delivered are not efficient, effective or economically advantageous.

Appointees' policy choices are "not based on evidence and record, but they rather define tasks from the political principal's perspective, which may not be in the best interest of the population".

When the consequences on social policy were examined, it was found that patronage channels public resources to party networks of supporters and clientele (Remmer 2007). Research in Ghana in 1999 revealed that the party in power allocated almost 30 per cent more funding to schools in areas where it had good results in parliamentary elections.

A decade later, in Pakistan, the government protected from floods only districts that paid bribes to state officials despite considerable donations from the international community. These policies have a negative impact on the quality of public goods delivered to citizens in virtually every area of public life.

The economy also suffers because of these activities. In order to hold on to power, the public sector seems to be always expanding in terms of budgetary spending and increased staff. Remmer mentions the case of Argentina, where until 2001, public spending exceeded revenue growth but government continued personnel spending, increasing it by 40 per cent. The result: Argentina's economic meltdown in 2001.

Another casualty in patronage employment is the decline in the quality of leadership in the public sector. For those who have doubts, I invite them to examine the discrepancy between what exists as a public sector today and where we would like it to be. This is because the number of appointees to senior positions who work for their country is few and far between. Most are now committed to party. Few are committed to promoting institutional adaptations in the public interest.

'Public spiritedness' is virtually a thing of the past. Improve leadership and an enhanced management capacity will soon become evident. Some countries like the US and Sweden have set up new institutions for identifying and developing future public-sector leaders. Our first task here would be to define a competence profile for future leaders.

There is an unfortunate notion among us that corruption is what exists when one's hand is, literally, found in the till. Corruption is wrongdoing on the part of an authority or powerful party through means that are illegitimate, immoral or incompatible with ethical standards. It often results from patronage and is associated with bribery.

Jamaica runs the risk of being seen as a neo-patrimonial regime where authority is exercised through patronage networks rather than through bureaucratic rules or laws. The lack of dedication to the underlying values of public service and the needs of our citizens, the deficits in transparency, checks and balances and accountability strongly suggests that leadership is lacking in the public sector. 'Party' continues to be the main factor influencing decision making, appointments, deployment of resources and promotions.

Government and party can no longer be separated; they are blurred categories. It must be treated as an urgent necessity that, whether it is real or imagined, the public must, going forward, be assured that appointing authorities are not being used to employ cronies, family, friends and factions to head crucial departments. We cannot maximise economy and efficiency under these conditions.

- Glenn Tucker is an educator and sociologist. Email feedback to and