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Thursday 23 May 2019
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Public disservice

INEPTITUDE, inefficiency, stagnation.

President Paula-Mae Weekes’ characterisation of the public service on Wednesday was unflattering. But she was not off the mark. In choosing her words, the President was careful to state she was speaking to the reputation that the public service has earned. But in a week in which long lines at the Board of Inland Revenue aggravated the already difficult Petrotrin situation, few can argue that reputation is unearned.

As the President herself noted, there are undoubtedly pools of competence within the service.

And very often, public servants do not get the type of praise and recognition they deserve. However, because the public service is funded directly by taxpayers and is inherently about the end-user, it should be held to a higher standard.

What’s at stake is not just customer satisfaction. The notion of this country becoming a developed nation is a far-fetched one if we have a public service that acts as a disincentive to trade and investment; that allows productivity to wane; that fails to implement our development goals.

But the problem of a weak public service is not unique to this country. In fact, many surveys of small-island states have found commonalities in post-colonial countries that inherited colonial-era systems.

According to a 2011 paper in the Global Journal of Management and Research, a review of such states paints a picture of overextended personnel, small reserve capacity, few specialists, inadequate compensation, poor training, low morale, low productivity and hindered innovation.

This list of problems not only rings true for us but also many of our Caricom neighbours. Indeed, as we stated earlier this week, the bureaucracy of Caricom itself remains a significant factor in the region’s inability to integrate and to advance the CSME and CCJ.

There have been many efforts at reform locally. The ballooning of the parallel regime of contract employment and the introduction of diamond certification addressed the need for greater flexibility and standardisation. However, the ethos of the public service remains largely unchanged despite costly reforms.

It’s important for us to learn lessons from the areas in which some progress has been made such as the Family Court and various medical institutions. While hierarchical regimes are not without value, we must identify and adapt systems that are responsive to the needs of contemporary society and not buttress hollow hangovers from our colonial past.

There needs to be a non-partisan approach to the question of public sector reform. Such reform has a direct bearing on the public institutions that are lynchpins for our development. The President must be lauded for shining a light on this issue.

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