Many will recall the pronouncement by the late firebrand politician George Odlum, that the public service here should be chopped in half. He had said what many other politicians had attempted but not dare say, at least not in so many words anyway. Many had referred to a great degree of public servants as a “lazy bunch” with even the current Prime Minister Dr Anthony noting the lack of commitment by some public sector workers in giving a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.
This week during a press conference I asked Dr James Fletcher who is the Minister responsible for the public services about productivity within the sector.
“Throughout the wage negotiations we heard about productivity, particularly from the Government’s side. But how do we improve and increase productivity against the several calls over the years for cut backs? As minister with responsibility for the public service, speak to the way forward.”
“The problem with productivity is that it is one of the most difficult matrixes to get your hands on,” Fletcher began by saying. “I think it’s half subjective, half empirical. For me, I have always said and I hold fast to that view that the issue is not the size of the public service, the issue is the alignment of the public service. There is no public service that has a one size fits all, a one structure fits all,” he went on to say. “Clients have become so much more stratified and when the services that people expect from you have changed so much and also with technology, you cannot have a public service that is configured the way this public service is configured. So I think for us the challenge in the public service is looking at some of the critical ministries like the ministry of health, the ministry of infrastructure, the ministry of social transformation, ministry of education. We have to seriously review the structures of those ministries, do some structural reviews and ensure that the alignment fits the job that they are supposed to do. Now that technology is making the delivery of services much more efficient, it is broadening the access people have to government, you are not seeing that on the ground,” the Minister expressed.
Fletcher who is also responsible for Science and Technology questioned why it was still difficult for someone to get a birth certificate in this day and age, or why payments to various Government agencies couldn’t be done online.
“These are frustrating things and this is what causes people to talk about productivity. So the issue is not size, the issue is alignment, the issue is the structure. We have to deal with it so that you have a service that is more in tune with the service it is delivering.”
He then dealt what he deemed the harsh truth; “we have a service right now structured to deliver service required in the 1980’s, not a service required in the 21st century. We have to change that.”
I then pressed the Minister further. “You seemed to have reinforced what I expressed and highlighted the issues, but what is the way forward? What will be done about it?”
“Public sector modernization has addressed quite a few of those issues. It cannot do it in isolation,” the Minister answered. According to him there have been ongoing discussions with several public sector agencies and some, like the customs department, had come in for functional review.
“It is not a simple answer. There are many things we have to do…there are a lot of initiatives that we have onboard. I think what we have not done is articulate what these initiatives are. We have not done a good job as ministry of public service and we will have to do a better job in publicizing what we are doing.”
The Minister went to speak on the ongoing public sector modernization being spearheaded by Dr Burton as well as retooling and training public officers. He said simple things like addressing public access counter services at various ministries as well as signage directing persons to the right ministries are also matters that need to be addressed.
“We as a ministry, as a Government don’t understand that our role is to make life as easy as possible for the people who access our services,” Fletcher stressed. He also questioned why persons had to go to various ministries to access information pertinent to a single document, instead of the information being accessed by one department through a database. “We have not done a good job of keeping up with technology,” he added. On the question of the public service with its size of 2,500 plus, the Minister reiterated that in his view the service is not “bloated.”
“There are some ministries who request more staff and when you go to them you realize that it’s because of what they are doing that they need more staff,” he said. “There are some ministries because of the way they have evolved, these ministries do not have the right structure for them to perform their functions. Then you go to other ministries and you see there are people who are not as occupied as they should be. I would say there are some functions that are redundant and some functions that are not being done the way they should be done.”
He emphasized: “For me, it is more an issue of structure and alignment than it is an issue of size.”