“Representative democracy is a messy means of translating collective desires into optimal levels of government service provision; the absence of referenda and direct forms of balloting for specific goods and services lead to an oversupply of government.” – (Howard A. Frank).
Forthright discussions on the state of Barbados’ economy, including criticisms on how it is being handled in contradistinction to how it was handled over the last (lost) decade, ought to be encouraged. Multiple views can prove useful in a small developing nation characterized by structural deficiencies, immense vulnerability to natural and man-made hazards, and the tendency for a population to resist change. Given the overwhelming mandate given to Prime Minister Mia Mottley and the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) administration, Barbados can ill-afford the luxury of uncritical adventurism at this time or in the immediate years to come.
Against that backdrop, the new Prime Minister has set in motion a pattern of governance that encourages ‘information sharing’ from Government to the people and vice versa. Certainly, and as noted in other global jurisdictions, “information sharing is about unlocking the many islands of information stores across Government and to discover the value of that information … help ensure that information is available to the right people at the right time – providing governments at all levels with improved capacity to save lives, improve lives and to better protect the community”. With the new BLP Government wanting to meet the expectations of its people, expanding national awareness by putting relevant information into the public domain for feedback – whether positive or negative is a welcomed path. People, as the key stakeholder in any construction of good governance, will demand that the information flow continues and is accurate.
Barbadians will surely insist that the Mottley-led administration legitimizes the exercise of information sharing. Such is possible through legislation, and specifically through a Freedom of Information Act. An Act facilitating information sharing can somewhat equate to satisfaction for the public; it also shields the executive arm of government from allegations of unnecessary secrecy, stealth, hidden agendas and claims of maladministration. Against the numerous calls for transparency and accountability in government, coupled with fulfilling another manifesto pledge, the legislative formality coupled with the present actions of a communicative administration will likely be respected across political boundaries. The early evidence from the current administration is a confidence booster and helps to rebuild the trust that had been badly dented between the governing and the governed after 2010.
Focus turns to the vexing and recurring problem of achieving efficiency and effectiveness in Barbados’ public service which has been in the limelight mostly for the wrong reasons. Most persons are aware that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has had missions in Barbados to see how best and in what ways the Fund can help in the Critical Mission as presented by the Mottley-led team. After its last visit, the IMF reported that despite the “significant progress made” by the Government of less than two months, the next phase of fixes will require “reducing expenditures – notably by improving the efficiency and effectiveness of public services, reducing government transfers to state-owned enterprises by reviewing user fees, exploring options for mergers, and providing stronger oversight”.
Undoubtedly, the workings of and the decisions made on the public service will continue to affect the daily lives of all Barbadians in one way or another. One is compelled to ask: how does Barbados go about fixing problems regarding the size, cost, efficiency, and productivity levels of its public service? Of course, this is without having to do harm to thousands badly needing to maintain their employment. Before his elevation to the position of Governor of the Central Bank of Barbados, Mr Cleviston Haynes stated that: “The public sector budget currently exceeds $3 billion, prompting some to question whether we are getting value for money and whether services are being delivered efficiently.” Thus, another chasm in the prevailing circumstances would be: how best can information sharing lead to an optimal public sector/service and improve the delivery of services?
With the high debt and fiscal drag that has derailed the many efforts for economic growth, the Mia Mottley administration is challenged to be innovative, nimble, and to overcome the internal pressures to improve public sector performance and at the same time contain expenditure growth. On the face of it, there are factors such as Barbados’ ageing populations and increasing health care and pension costs that will add to the budgetary burdens. After all, the country is weighed down by high levels of taxation and they are demanding the Government be made more accountable for what is done with taxpayers’ money. While those near retirement age in the service can be encouraged to take an immediate package, one must still consider the financial costs and any skill deficits that could obtain.
It may matter that Barbados was not in the best position for empirically evaluating the work being done in the public service. The latest Auditor General Report indicates that a lack of ‘adequate resources’ and ‘operational autonomy’ have hampered the Auditor from performing the duties of the office. If anything, successive Auditor General Reports
would concretize the number of abnormalities, wastage, and inadequate reporting that have taken root in Government ministries, departments and statutory bodies. Barbados must develop ways and means to enhance the public’s capacity to demand and monitor how its main and statutory departments perform.
Moreover, the problem of measuring and quantifying the benefits of services to the public must be able to withstand scrutiny with timely reporting. Clearly, if public service accountability is to significantly improve, PM Mottley must reinforce the dilemma that Barbados now faces to those under her charge so that they would not go down the same disastrous road as previous administrations. The current Leader of the Opposition will have to isolate personal sentiments from the compulsion to act in the best interests of those without legitimate voice and presence.
The BLP administration must fast-track its emphasis on broadening and utilizing electronic government (e-government). This e-government refers to government’s use of technology, particularly web-based applications to enhance access to and delivery of government information and service to all. In Antigua and Barbuda for example, e-government has contributed to several costs and time savings and improved the ease of doing business. More generally, maximising e-government builds better relationships between the government and the public by making interactions with citizens smoother, easier, and more efficient. Government agencies report using electronic commerce to improve core business operations and deliver information and services faster, cheaper, and to wider groups of customers. Quite naturally, ongoing training and retooling for efficiency within the public service would complement the adjustments and reforms. So that instead of searching to find persons to join the unemployment roll, emphasis would be on matching skills and acumen to the public services to be delivered.
Barbados is challenged to reduce expenditures but with the application of political will and decisiveness, win-win situations can be achieved. It is even more meaningful that the current administration persists in information sharing so that the private sector and the trade unions are part of key decision-making bodies. The ‘social partnership’ must play a formative role in the solutions to existing problems in the public sector.
Providing stronger oversight, as has been called for by the IMF, will be PM Mottley’s best held ‘wild card’ and should likely ease tensions going forward with the restructuring and reforms that must happen if Barbados is to become the best that it
(Dr George C. Brathwaite is a part-time lecturer at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, and a political consultant. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org).