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EDITORIAL - PM right on bureaucracy

Published:Wednesday | June 4, 2014 | 12:00 AM

In a speech to civil servants last week, Prime Minister (PM) Portia Simpson Miller made two little-noticed statements which, unless we read too much into them, could have profound implications for the structure and management of the bureaucracy - hopefully for the better.

We hope, too, that the prime minister's remarks signal an intent to throw the full authority of her office behind the much-talked-about reform of the public sector, which, for a long time, has been in a state of policy drift.

An important underpinning of the PM's observations was a (re)statement of the fundamental principle of this and any government.

"Every Jamaican citizen," the prime minister said, "has the right to an efficient and customer-friendly public sector. Even in the midst of difficulty, we cannot afford to drop our hands. There is no room for inactivity and ineptness."

Put another way, taxpayers ought to expect value for their money, including a bureaucracy that is entrepreneurial, in that it sees its role of delivering the highest quality service at the lowest cost and the State as a facilitator of the private sector in the creation of jobs and driving economic growth.

It demands a reorientation of the Jamaican State, with its hulking, self-perpetuating bureaucracy that, historically, has been distrustful of the private-sector; has failed to offer creative solutions to the problems of underdevelopment; grown obsequious to the political executive; and in the process, contributed to the anaemic economic growth that has characterised Jamaica for more than four decades.

The transformation implied in Mrs Simpson Miller's statement is supposedly part of reforms Jamaica is to undertake under its agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and for which Venice Pottinger-Scott was recently appointed the new czar. Unfortunately, neither we nor the public is certain that Mrs Pottinger-Scott actually exists, or how she plans to carry forward any plans left by her predecessors.

At the same time, our perception is that Horace Dalley, the minister in the finance ministry who has oversight for the public sector, is concerned merely with adhering to the wage targets - bringing the public-sector pay bill to nine per cent of GDP by 2016, to which the administration is close.

Public-sector inefficiency

Realising that target is very important, as part of Jamaica's strategy to lower its debt and haul itself out of a perpetual fiscal crisis. But it won't, of itself, resolve the conundrum of public-sector inefficiency, the absence of growth and underdevelopment. Which brings us to Mrs Simpson Miller's second remark.

The Government, she disclosed, was developing "an instrument that determines how we pay the public sector for the work that they do". By and large, public-sector employees are compensated in linear fashion, with prescribed scales and little accommodation for individual quality or skills.

In that respect, the public sector largely reflects what is paid for, which is not the best quality. Further, the Government's success in containing the wage bill, which at J$154 billion - minus pension costs - is nearly 28 per cent of the Budget, is primarily because of a wage freeze. That is unsustainable.

Perhaps, it is the PM's signal that her Government is prepared to take the hard decisions. Affording a creative, efficient, problem-solving public sector might mean fewer people and better wages. Bureaucrats may then not merely pretend to work.

The opinions on this page, except for the above, do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gleaner. To respond to a Gleaner editorial, email us: editor@gleanerjm.com or fax: 922-6223. Responses should be no longer than 400 words. Not all responses will be published.