Perhaps the most common accusation thrown at any ruling political party in Barbados is mismanagement. Why? Because politicians are elected to properly manage the affairs of the country, and when government services are poorly managed, then the criticisms of mismanagement are justified.
Every government service is an easy target of the accusation because when compared to the private sector, governments rarely run services as efficiently. But why does it have to be like this? Why can’t the government manage public services better?
To be fair, it is not for lack of trying. Three main initiatives are being tried, namely: statutory boards, public sector reform initiatives, and the National Initiative for Service Excellence (NISE). However, without success.
The Statutory Board initiative seemed like a good idea of semi-privatising government services. There was a Board of Directors who managed Executive Officers, who then managed middle managers, who then managed the workers. With so much management, how could it not succeed – but fail it did, and miserably as objectively reported by the Auditor General. That failed experiment was, and continues to be unsustainably costly. The simple lesson that is begging to be learnt is that you cannot reap the fruits of privatisation from the tree of partial privatisation. Our costly field trial has shown us that the only two options are to go all in or fail.
The next good idea was public sector reform. That too has not borne good fruit because the reforms were only superficial – they did not address the cancer slowly destroying the efficiency of the public service. It is not public sector reform that is needed, but public sector surgery – albeit minor
This cancer was introduced in 1974 when the public service was intentionally changed from being a place where people were hired and promoted based on merit, to one based on whether people found favour with the political party in government. The change did not occur overnight, but our public service degraded from being one of the most professional worldwide to one of the most political.
There were many consequences of this change – all of them bad. Public servants were put in the unfair position of having the public wonder whether they achieved their post through demonstrated competence, or whether they were ‘sent’ because of their political party affiliation. Competent employees can be frustrated when poorly managed by an incompetent ‘sent’, and incompetent ‘sents’ being managed by an incompetent ‘sent’ can result in confusion and abysmal service.
This failed 40-year experiment has taught us an important lesson – if it is not broke, then do not attempt to fix it. Fortunately, by carefully removing the political cancer introduced in 1974, and allowing the public service to return to its professional roots can only benefit the public sector employees, and the general public whom they serve. To continue with this failed experiment is to grow the apathy and frustration felt by public servants who are aware that they work in a poisoned system, where it is unlikely that they will ever be promoted on merit alone
And now we come to the National Initiative for Service Excellence (NISE), a public-private sector initiative that was a bad idea from the start. As we learnt before, it is either all in or failure. NISE had obvious structural defects that prevented it from being successful, and it was explicitly warned about them.
NISE focused on satisfying customers by improving the pleasantness of the employees who interacted with the customers at the point of delivery. The highest international quality management standard is ISO 9001. This standard focuses on satisfying customers by improving the quality of the product, which is done by continually improving the management of how the product is developed and delivered. A few examples should suffice.
a) I do not go to the Town Planning department to have a pleasant conversation with their secretary (NISE approach), but to have my application processed quickly (ISO 9001 approach).
b) I do not go to the bank to have a pleasant conversation with their teller (NISE), but to transact my business accurately and quickly (ISO 9001).
c) I do not go to a car dealership to have a pleasant conversation with their receptionist (NISE), but to have my car serviced properly and promptly (ISO 9001).
That the Private Sector continues to embrace this failed approach after 10 years of incontrovertible evidence, perfectly explains why so many formerly Barbadian owned businesses are now foreign owned, and why Barbadians have generally reverted to the mind-set of aspiring to the highest office of overseer.