N Touch
Tuesday 25 September 2018
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Public service reform (part 1)

Public service reform

Part 1

THE PUBLIC SERVICE is a key element in the governmental system and therefore its underperformance and lax modus operandi should be a matter of concern for all.

As I begin the discussion on the need for public service reform, I wish to make it very clear that I am not critical of the competence, commitment, professionalism, perspective and attitude of all public servants. Some of them are very conscientious and devoted to duty and are determined to give of their very best. Unfortunately, these are in a distinct minority.

The majority of public servants are quite happy in achieving the minimum or less and are very often indifferent to the tasks required of them and, more so, to the inconvenience and frustration experienced by client groups.

For historical and other reasons, the public service is unquestionably deficient in the delivery of services to the general population, thereby negatively affecting the quality of their lives.

There is also the inescapable notion that the public service generally does not possess the scientific, technical and administrative competence to assess developments in a fast-changing world and thus offer appropriate policy advice to meet these challenges.

More specifically, the public service lacks the capacity either to propose or implement measures for diversification and restructuring of the economy to promote sustainable development in collaboration with committed elements in the private sector.

Speaking at a panel discussion on the recent release of the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, Dr Terrence Farrell made the bold and sweeping statement that “the public service system is an outdated bureaucracy and must be reformed with service commissions replaced by human resource departments to make hiring qualified personnel more efficient…

“The system we have today is a colonial institution. We inherited the Public Service Commission and put it in the Constitution. All the bacchanal (in the public service) is as a result of a set of institutions from since before independence and we haven’t changed… These public sector reforms are necessary” (Newsday 28/9/17).

Two comments are relevant to this statement. The first is that the existence and operation of service commissions is only part of the problem, though a critical part, in explaining the underperformance of the public service.

There is a historical and cultural dimension to the malaise afflicting the public service.

In a subsequent column I will have more to say on the anomalous role of service commissions because it was an issue I raised in Parliament way back in 1983, some 34 years ago.

Then prime minister George Chambers seemed impressed with my arguments and personally requested that I elaborate on them. Later on in columns in the newspapers I again adverted to the issue.

Secondly, there have been numerous commissions and committees appointed to investigate the functioning of the public service and make recommendations for reform.

The fact that little has happened means that either there was a deficiency of diagnosis or a failure to implement measures proposed. The question then is why was there a recurring inability to effect reform. One may speculate that the public servants charged with the responsibility to undertake reform, including police service reform, have themselves a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

Recourse to some historical principles regarding the role and function of the public service is relevant. The public service was deemed to be the implementation arm of the government and the political directorate, the policymaking arm. This neat division of responsibility of course did not accord with the reality.

Public servants are unavoidably involved in pertinent aspects of policymaking and can also subvert or modify policy through the process of implementation.

On the other hand, ministers are known to take upon themselves the task of micromanagement and thus direct involvement in the process of policy execution.


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