Friday, March 21, 2014

Transforming the public sector

ANYONE who has been reading my articles will be aware that I have always been caught up with the need to transform the public sector into a more efficient and facilitative support for private sector development. When I talk about public sector, I don't just mean the persons employed in the sector, but very importantly the rules and legislation, which affect the private sector intimately.

In fact, we need to understand that public sector bureaucracy, and more directly the inefficiency, is a major cause for reduced levels of productivity when compared to our international partners. In the 2014 Doing Business Report, our ranking slipped from 91 to 94 out of 189 economies, in terms of the ease of doing business. Many of the challenges relate directly to the bureaucracy such as registering a business, registering property, dealing with construction permits, enforcing contracts, resolving insolvency, etc. In fact there were no areas that we improved in over 2013, but in the area of registering property we declined by 12 places.

The current reforms that are taking place under the economic programme, such as tax reform, insolvency act, security in personal property, super form for business registration, and many others, will certainly lay the foundation for ensuring the improvement in the doing business index in Jamaica. And so I am confident that from a policy perspective the government is doing much to address the challenges to doing business in Jamaica.

One thing I have learnt in my years of work, is that irrespective of how good the systems in an organisation are -- or put another way even if you have the latest software programmes, the output is only as good as the people who are delivering the service. So in my world of cycling, although having a good bicycle can help with performance, in the end it all depends on the physical and mental toughness of the cyclist. As I have always joked with a friend of mine who used to change his bicycles regularly, because he felt that they would perform better, that after about the fifth bicycle change he should recognise that the problem is not the bicycle.

So, too, in the public sector I realise that the problem with the bureaucracy has in many instances to do with the attitude of the persons to service, and how they see the public. If you see the public as nothing more than some people who must wait until I who have the power am ready to serve them, then this is exactly what contributes to the inefficiency, as service delivery is compromised by that attitude. As an example, I have been in situations where the rules do not facilitate efficiency and the public servant's attitude is that service is utmost and finds a way to deliver good service.

On the other hand I have also been in situations where the rules provide for efficient service but the attitude of the public servant ensures bad service.

So the Development Approval Process does have a computer based system that if used, will significantly improve the time to approve construction permits, but it is the attitude to service of the players that cause the delays. In fact this attitude is a major cause for inadequate growth in the country, as improving the process can add billions to economic activity, resulting in more economic growth and jobs.

It is for these reasons I think that the only way to truly transform the public sector bureaucracy to greater efficiency, is to attack it from the human resource aspect, by (1) ensuring promotions based on performance rather than seniority; and (2) implementing some measure of performance-based pay.

There are two organisations in particular that I want to highlight the good work being done, and the changing attitude to service. The first is the Tax Authority of Jamaica, under the leadership of Ainsley Powell, who has been making significant strives in transforming that organisation to a model for the rest of the public sector to follow. This is my third year of filing my taxes online, and again I can attest to the excellent service attitude and the ease of being able to file my taxes in the evening or on a Saturday morning. In fact, you can start filing one day and complete it another.

There is of course more work to be done in the service delivery at the physical tax offices, and in discussions with Ainsley I know that he is working to improve these facilities and I have seen some marginal improvement.

The second is the police force, under the leadership of Commissioner Ellington. I know that crime is still a problem but I believe that much of the crime is caused by the indiscipline that is supported by many, who lament the high levels of crime, but still support the indiscipline. And the two "in your face" areas I speak to are road indiscipline which is now not the taxi drivers but the persons who hold up traffic while texting or having the phone at their ears) and the night noise (I would like to commend ministers Davies and Guy for their efforts in bringing some amount of discipline to public transport.

But while crime remains a challenge, I believe that the attitude of the policeman to citizens is changing, and also the approach to crime fighting is much more intelligent than we had in the past. There is much more that needs to be done, as there are still instances of police abuse, but I sincerely believe that the attitude to service is changing, and today I feel more comfortable with the police than two years ago.

Therefore as we seek to improve the public sector, we need not go overseas to get some consultant or model to look at, but speak to leaders such as these two gentlemen, and find out from them what their approach has been. Let us use our own Jamaicans who are trying to make a difference as examples.

So if we are to truly transform the public sector, to one that is facilitative of the increased productivity of the private sector and citizens, we must understand that the most important part of good service is an attitude, more than the rules.

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