With the Government saying less and less, the options getting fewer and fewer and the time to act becoming increasingly shorter, the level of speculation about how the country will eliminate $400 million in public expenditure is increasing.
We are also reasonably sure that given Government’s talks with the unions recently and the fact that because of the passage of legislation after the fall of the Erskine Sandiford Administration in 1994 prohibiting the cutting of the salaries of public servants, there is growing anxiety that there could be significant job losses in the public sector.
While all this is speculation, what is sure is that cutting nearly half a billion dollars from public expenditure will not be easy and how ever it is implemented, its effects will be widespread.
What we hope though, is that the current situation, as unwanted as it is, will help us to make some of the common sense decisions we all know we have to make, but which we have been putting off for political reasons for a long time — and both sides of the political divide are guilty.
Without access to the details the decision makers would have at their fingertips, we can’t make the kind of definitive statements we would like to, but we take it as given that Government support of statutory organisations will also take a major hit.
And that might turn out to be just what the doctor ordered for this country.
There is no doubt, for instance, that the Transport Board has provided a vital service to Barbados for the past half century, which has contributed in no small measure to our development. But at the same time, mainly through no fault of its own, the board has engaged in some most inefficient practices over the years.
We have had ministers and chairmen determining who will be hired, how many will be hired, from whom buses will be bought, the size and capacity of those buses, who will insure them etc. We have even had ministers and chairmen engaged in route determination and scheduling. People who were lawyers and other professionals one day suddenly became transport and traffic engineers.
In today’s stifling economic climate, perhaps we will create for the first time a sensible and efficient bus operation — achieved through proper review where political considerations don’t even have the benefit of a back seat.
The story of the National Housing Corporation is similar to that of the Transport Board. A look around the country shows that there are thousands of families who would not have had a roof over their heads had it not been for the NHC.
But again, its inefficiencies are as outstanding as its achievements, again with chairman and boards and ministers over the years who suddenly believed that an appointment made them land surveyor, contractor, construction engineer, property manager, rent collector etc.
In similar vein, the Urban and Rural Development Commissions, mired in political controversy from day one, have also served to improve the lot of countless Barbadian households and small businesses through the provision of roads, housing solutions and contracts to achieve these. But like other statutory corporations wastage appears second nature.
Then we get the Barbados Water Authority, which when juxtaposed against any similar service provided anywhere on this earth must get a passing grade. It has protected the health of Barbadians with a quality product, and even where questions have been raised about the level of contaminants getting into our aquifers, we have to look more at our societal practices than the performance of the BWA.
But the BWA is notoriously inefficient. If a comparative analysis was done it might turn out to be the most inefficient we have in the country. Certainly, we can think of no privately owned company that could have survived this long if it “lost” at least half of its production each day, as has been estimated with the BWA.
Again, by way of objective analysis it would be hard for anyone to justify the staff levels at the authority — but year after year taxpayers are compelled to pour millions into it to sustain inefficient systems.
And while we are certain it is not perfect, we contrast all the above without the Sanitation Service Authority, which by comparison has been making bricks with straw for decades. Never enough trucks, never enough repair and maintenance capacity, never enough heavy duty equipment at its landfill, but by and large garbage collection occurs like clockwork — even if the clock is a little slow at times.
Government must be prepared in these circumstances to fund agencies adequately to improve efficiency, and cut the umbilical cord from others to force them to grow up. Any other course of action is certain to worsen our financial position rather than improve it.