Barbados is a remarkable country. Its long tradition of representative democracy, stability, its vitality and longstanding commitment to the education of its people continue to inspire. However, this strong and stable position has begun to be obscured now by the social, political and economic challenges that are giving rise to growing levels of inequality, lack of hope, mistrust, lower standards, poor representation and limited participation in the decision-making process. The lack of bold and decisive leadership and the reluctance to engage citizens in the search for sustainable solutions is cause for concern. The governance model currently in operation is not fit for purpose. A Barbados fit for the 21st century has to be modern: more participatory, accountable, transparent, and innovative and with a continuous focus being placed on modernity and change in order to stop us from falling further behind.
To meet that call there must be a fundamental change to our system of governance and one that gives greater public participation, transparency and accountability. Citizens knowing what Government is doing is an essential part of accountability. This should be seen as a right and not a favour conferred by Government. We must face up to the stark realities of our current position and not hide from them or wish them away. The social, economic and political order we have now is not working for all and needs to change. It will not get better by itself. Thousands of lives will worsen, not improve, if we do not act in ways that previous administrations have not. People participation will be necessary. Even though the stakes are high and there will undoubtedly be much pain. People will not sign up to a programme of reform designed for them by someone else. They need to be involved at every stage, with an approach to policy formulation that is more open, more genuinely participatory, and more grounded in real life experience.
There is an emerging consensus about the need for a transformational change in governance and a growing appeal and focus for a new politics. This is essential if we are to deal successfully with the great challenges we are experiencing at the present: the downturn in our economic performance over the last ten years has made our country poorer, cost jobs, and squeezed our living standards. It has set our country back and hurt the livelihoods of ordinary working people. We require therefore politics that speaks with real familiarity of daily experiences: an educational system that is failing too many students; young people unable to find jobs; increasing levels of crime; the vulnerable youth struggling against the tide of deviant behaviour; an ever increasing cost of living due in part to high taxes; low productivity; gross inefficiencies and growing inequality.
Some of our political leaders seemed well-intentioned, but are at a loss how to communicate outside election periods and revive an interest/belief in politics and public purpose. Voter apathy seems to be on the increase. Faced with easily accessible and manageable constituencies the level of representation given by some parliamentarians is poor and needs to be addressed. The issues confronting the country are as contentious as ever. Equality of opportunity, let alone income and wealth remain elusive. Public services are poorly managed and inadequate. Private sector offerings are often expensive and not up to the standards expected.
In tackling these problems, we must invest in rigorous reforms that are more responsive and conducive to the fast-changing environment we have to operate in. We cannot chart a path for the future by reverting to the policies of 1960’s, 1990’s or even those of the years after 1994. We must be prepared to take on vested and outdated interest and practices both in the public and private sectors head on and show intellectually and practically why they are wrong. The vision needs to offer those who are hurting from the lack of opportunities: a good education, lack of jobs, and lack of good health care, a tangibly better life.
The question uttermost is what reforms and values should we use in the transformational changes to underpin the building of the political, economic and social model we need to take us forward.
We should consider:
· Politics that engage the widest range of talent and expertise and one seek and maintain regular engagement with the public.
· The rationalization of constituencies with fewer parliamentary representatives.
· Review the composition and working of the Senate.
· Ministerial accountability should be reviewed so as to make Government ministers more accountable to Parliament.
· A governance model that contains elements of direct democracy. The belief that the political and economic elites always know better than the average citizen, that they are always more competent on all issues and always take the correct decisions is far from the truth.
· Increased opportunity for all through education reform. We should be bold in stimulating all schools to go beyond, creating new frontiers for standards and results. We then require the less effective schools to match the standard of the best.
· The rationalization of all Government operations for a leaner more agile public sector driven by Total Quality Management System and new technology.
· Public sector employees will have to contemplate change, inventiveness and responsiveness on an unprecedented level. The essential publicness and universality of services should not be compromised, but everything from foreign ministry services to education will have to devise ingenious ways of doing more with less.
· Senior and middle management positions in the public sector should be open to outside competition. · Review the Auditor General’s remit so that there is an absolute end to end process for all outcomes.
· Government should focus on providing essential public services rather than operating enterprises that would perform better in the private sector.
· Review the Social Partnership; make it more inclusive and representative of civil society. Provide open space for public dialogue there is also a need within that group for a body of (nonpartisan) economic and social policy experts (think tank) who can run a slide rule over the more outlandish claims of politicians and point out the pitfalls of their policies.
· How are we to fund our health care system, education and diversify our economy etc.? These are big ideas that the Social Partnership should be tasked with.
· We need to become a country of innovators; private enterprise should support our university if we are to ensure that graduates are fit for purpose for jobs that are available to them. More businesses should also collaborate and partner with the university to give back to the education system.
· A business strategy (public and private sectors) that focuses on improving standards and productivity, rewarding hard-working people by letting rewards follow effort. Wealth creation and profit maximisation should be encouraged. Society values and needs wealth for the public good, but it should not be disproportional to effort and workers who help to generate it should share in the gains.
· Where competition is not an effective discipline, there should be tough (greater financial penalties) and efficient regulation in the interests of customers. Regulators should be well resourced and more proactive.
· The private sector should consider taking on the role as an effective agent of change. Where there is a lack of the requisite managerial/ technical skills in the public sector, the private sector should consider helping to fill that void as part of their corporate give back to the community.
We should challenge all our leaders to do their very best for our country they serve and to provide leadership, vision and accountability while also allowing us to participate in the totality of economic, social and cultural choices.
(Mervyn Holligan is a private citizen.)