The public service is vastly over-staffed and we are probably getting on average no more than 20 per cent value from each employee. Productivity is abysmally low.
Let me hasten to add that this is not the fault of the civil servants. Most I have known in my 30 years in the civil service are hardworking, enthusiastic and eager to contribute. And most, at least those who have not given up, are intensely frustrated by the work environment in which they find themselves. They are embedded in a system that does not reward results, innovative thought or creativity. They’re trained and paid to follow orders and act like robots. Many end up thinking and feeling like robots.
Just consider – once you are appointed you cannot be fired except for stealing money; you are promoted largely on the basis of seniority; you get no rewards – sometimes not even a ‘thank you’ for working hard and producing results; and if you try to cut through the red tape in which you are enmeshed in order to expedite a matter to help some poor citizen and, in doing so, make a mistake, the powers that be will come down on you like a ton of bricks.
In those circumstances, what do you do? Okay, I exaggerate, but not by much.
Now, let me preface what I’m about to write by saying that I have no idea what the plans are for civil service reform. I’m pretty sure we can reduce the staff of the public sector by at least 15 per cent over five years with minimal or no mandatory lay-offs. We need to shed jobs, but as humanely as possible.
First of all, put an immediate freeze on new hiring and do not fill any vacant posts for the next five years. Instead, redeploy all persons in administrative posts within the civil service as needed. Start a voluntary retirement scheme by which staff in designated grades could leave the civil service voluntarily with immediate retirement benefits and compensation.
Second, require each ministry to come up with its own proposed plan for reducing expenditure by 20 per cent over five years; this figure may well vary from ministry to ministry. These would include the staffing procedures noted above, and also the re-engineering of work processes, streamlining of existing operations, re-training of staff, making greater use of information technology or other innovations, providing services through alternative modes of service delivery, and increasing the private sector’s participation in the delivery of public services. Each plan would then be approved by a central body and the ministry given whatever is required to meet its targets.
The idea here is to impose external targets on the ministries/departments, but to allow them to come up with their own ways of meeting them and to help them do so. This approach has the advantage of requiring ministries to achieve the goals, but empowering them to decide how to do so, and offering rewards for those ministries that meet their targets. This challenge should release innovative energy throughout the civil service and motivate staff at all levels to achieve a national goal of genuinely excellent service to the public.
We also have to come around to the idea that ministries should be policy formulating and monitoring bodies and not doers of things, like fixing roads, repairing broken pipes, de-bushing, etc.
Let’s say we decide to wrap up the NCC’s de-bushing and landscaping activities over a period of two years and hand over these responsibilities to the private sector. So you have a number of landscaping businesses, including new entrants, given contracts that cover specific areas of the island with precise, transparent and accountable job requirements. We might then say to these businesses that we would like them to take on some of the NCC workers as a first option for three months. If they fail to meet the businesses’ productivity standards, they can let them go.
The point here is that in transferring workers across the board from the public to the private sector we would be increasing national productivity.
At the same time, as part of the reform process, a central body starts examining all the established posts both administrative and technical in the service, with a view to rationalization. For example, the Ministry of Agriculture has over fifty technical posts and the Ministry of Tourism has about ten. Compare this with their respective contributions to our economy – a clear case of institutional inertia gone mad. Also, many of the administrative posts, like clerical officer and stenographer, are obsolescent in this age of computerization.
Similarly, a central body works on designing a performance-based, service-oriented, management system and culture within the civil service – one that provides a motivating and positive work environment.
We could also set quality measurable national targets that would be rewarded if met. For example, task the Ministry of Health with reducing the incidence of chronic diseases (diabetes, heart disease, etc.) by 20 per cent over a five-year period; or, the Ministry of Education with increasing the number of school leavers with adequate certification by 75 per cent over the same period; or, the police force with reducing the incidence of violent crime and the prison population by 20 per cent over the same period. Once again, we should empower the ministries/departments and their entire staff to come up with their own means of achieving the targets.
(Dr Peter Laurie is a retired
permanent secretary and head
of the Foreign Service who once served as Barbados’ Ambassador
to the United States)