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Monday 16 September 2019
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Commentary

Lazy public servants or lazy leadership?

PAOLO KERNAHAN
PAOLO KERNAHAN

THE PRIME MINISTER pulled up the media for misquoting him as describing public servants as lazy. So offended was the PSA’s Watson Duke with the PM’s description of his paymasters, he was prompted to use the most piquant language in dismissing Dr Rowley.

His contempt was swiftly followed by an arrest for alleged sedition and subsequent repose in a hospital bed. The takeaway here, people, is now you know what you have to do to get a bed at the Mt Hope Hospital.

Back to the PM and his hair-splitting. He is correct in saying he didn’t use the word lazy. Here is an extract of his remarks: "We have a lot of people on the payroll. Many of them produce absolutely nothing when the day come. Collect a salary at the end of the month and make the most noise when the pay is late."

Of course he was right! As always, though, the good doctor’s talent lies in diagnosis, not treatment. The true source of our low productivity is lazy leadership.

In my area, there’s a gang of regional corporation workers assigned to construct a drain. It’s going on two years and this bunch of ragtag labourers is making excruciatingly slow progress. This is the Sistine Chapel of box drains.

The work outfit in question is the typical regional corporation detail; there are two designated shovel holders and two women responsible for checking their social media feeds while sitting on the quarter-finished culvert. Then there’s the four-minute foreman (usually there for four minutes or less) and three labourers working.

Where is the monitoring from the regional corporation to ensure the project is moving along as it should or that workers are putting in the effort?

Also in my neck of the woods is a pain-in-the-neck road more pockmarked than the surface of the moon. For the first time in years, a team of corporation workers showed up to “ratch” a patch. They spent the first half-hour cursing loudly enough to make Dave Chappelle proud.

All this coarse chatter was part of their process in determining the appropriate placement of traffic cones. With the arrival of a passing shower, the crew scattered as if it were raining super-heated volcanic pumice stones. They haven’t returned since.

Each of us has our tales to astonish, diving the depths of state sector inefficiency, lethargy and deplorable service. What makes this reality unbearable is the fact that it needn’t be this way. Crappy service from the public sector isn’t inevitable.

Recently some kind souls shared advice online for those trying to get passports renewed. The Pt Fortin passport office, it seems, is a beacon of efficiency. By all accounts, the demeanour of the southern staffers is cheery and light.

This is in stark contrast to the unfed gargoyles in Port of Spain. At least one person reported being in and out of the Pt Fortin passport office within an hour. No stress and no bite-up attitude or screw pan to sours your day.

When my driver’s permit was up for renewal a few years ago, I got a tip to go down to the Chaguanas office. Parking was therapy, the lines were long, and the AC in the office produced more water than cold breeze. However, staffers there were efficient and helpful. Customers were processed quickly and lines didn’t stay long for too long.

These examples prove public service efficiency isn’t a unicorn. Enhanced productivity isn’t impossible. So the affliction Dr Rowley accurately described is a manifestation of the Government’s failure to take responsibility for its service delivery.

Governments past and present have aided and abetted in sustaining environments that breed contempt for service and a complete disregard for a solid work ethic. To borrow a phrase used by Fixin’ T&T’s Kirk Waithe, leadership creates culture. The two-hour workday could not exist without complicity or dereliction of duty from the upper echelons of the public sector.

The Prime Minister inherited a problem that has been decades in the making, painstakingly molded by political culture.

Still, as Dr Rowley is intimately aware, any field that isn’t tended can turn to pasture. If the public sector operates without the application of policy and enforcement of performance standards it is doomed to deliver a predictable output – which is nothing when the day come.

Poor productivity across state services is a problem the Government can either assume leadership to fix or complain about like some force beyond its influence.

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