stabroek news by henry jeffrey

Last week I stated that during my presentation to the Public Service Commission of Inquiry I argued that after only a few months in office, the present regime succumbed to ethnic entrepreneurship and began undercutting its stated principles of what a public servant should be. I then identified two problems that generally affect public management and proposed solutions to the first of these, namely the propensity of politicians to trust only those close to them and in their immediate circle.

The second problem, an aspect of which we are observing in practice at this very moment, is that the public service is usually a rich source of political patronage that is difficult for politicians to resist. This is particularly so in developing countries where institutional checks and balances are not properly entrenched and even more so in ethnically divided societies where the demands and pressures coming from constituents, family, friends, etc, are much greater.

20140101henryI suggested to the commission that one way of mitigating the effects of this problem would be to take public employment out of the dark and make the entire process more transparent by systematically publishing all vacancies, the process for filling them and the names and qualifications of the people who apply and who are awarded the positions. Benchmarking this by publishing all the existing positions in the service, the required qualifications and the names of the incumbents and their qualifications, may also be useful.

Those who have never been in top positions in government sometimes speak glibly about nepotism and friendship in the award of jobs. Indeed, many a time these are the same people who appear to believe that this moral stance does not apply to them when their family and friends are in positions to help them. This is a small country with some unique problems and creating the conditions that make patronage easily detectable establishes ‘policy space’ for political operatives who wish to behave in an upright manner.

I drew the commission’s attention to three other important issues. The first has to do with the nature of the public service, which in many areas allows the same managers to devise, execute and monitor policy and so in effect to monitor themselves. Many examples of this exist throughout the public sector.

In the public health sector before the Georgetown Public Hospital (GPHC) was made into a public corporation, it was simply a department of the Ministry of Health (now Public Health). The ministry had the responsibility of designing and monitoring the policy of the GPHC. The health inspectorate, which is supposed to monitor hospitals, also comes under the purview of the ministry, but notwithstanding the many complaints made about conditions at the GPHC, it kept its sights strictly on the private hospitals. As far as I am aware, the largest and most controversial hospital has only once been inspected, and that was about fifteen years ago. Even more controversially from a financial standpoint, the ministry devises, manages and monitors the drugs policy.

In my opinion, an effective public service would be one consisting of a small number of small ministries that focus on policy formulation, monitoring and representing their sector nationally and internationally. In the late 1980s, international consultants Peat Marwick KPMG advised that Guyana only needs about 13 ministries, yet the PPP/C took the number to about 18 and now we have more than twice the recommended number although nothing relevant has significantly changed.

In terms of policy formulation, I believe that the commission needs to make clear the relationship between the constitutional service commissions – the Police, Teaching and Public Service Commissions – and the political directorate. As I understand it, the main purpose of the commissions is to ensure that there is objectivity in public service recruitment, discipline and dismissals. But over the years, regimes, aided by their lengthy stays in government, have been able to stack each of the service commissions with loyalists, making their claimed neutrality extremely dubious.

With this in mind, the commission may wish to recommend ways in which government control of the service commissions could at least be mitigated. But what is much more important, much less recognised and deserving of some clarity is what arrangements exist to ensure that the commissions and government are on the same page where policy directions are concerned.

Remember the case in which policemen who burnt the genitals of a youth in their custody were later promoted. Faced with public outrage, the then Minister of Home Affairs claimed he had nothing to do with the promotions as the institutions that made them were in that respect outside his purview. I argued then that the minister was wrong, but my experience teaches that his dilemma was only the tip of the iceberg, and the commission could bring some clarity to the area.

Venturing into the quagmire of public service emoluments, I argued to the commission that at the end of the day, remunerations must be based on the level of economic development of the country, comparison with countries at a similar level of development and competition in the national labour market to acquire some of the better people. In a poor country such as this, these are dire but inevitable limitations. However, that said, I sought to address two matters.

Firstly, I argued that there should be a performance-related element to public service pay. I alluded to Cheddi Jagan’s notion that public service pay should be based upon two elements, one attempting to keep income at its real value and the other based upon some evaluation of individual performance.

Secondly, a hobby-horse of mine in this column, I insisted that government should never be allowed to set its own remuneration. We have had this problem with former President Jagdeo giving himself huge rewards from the public purse and, as if to demonstrate that this kind of behaviour is an unstoppable aspect of human nature, after only a few months in office, this regime could not wait to dip into the public purse for the personal benefit of its members!

The framers of the US Constitution long recognised this human propensity and made it impossible for a sitting president to increase his/her own salary. The commission should recommend a constitutional salary review commission similar to that Trinidad & Tobago has established to periodically fix the wages of all top public servants – presidents, ministers, parliamentarians, judges, permanent secretaries etc.