Trinidad and Tobago
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What service commissions cost us

Diana Mahabir-Wyatt Police Service Commission chariman Justice Judith Jones presents Police Commissioner Erla Harewod-Christopher with her letter of appointment at the PSC, Pasea Street, Tunapuna on February 10. -
Police Service Commission chariman Justice Judith Jones presents Police Commissioner Erla Harewod-Christopher with her letter of appointment at the PSC, Pasea Street, Tunapuna on February 10. -

A news release from the TT Chamber of Commerce last week quoted a recent study from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) which said the proportion of firms paying for private security in the Caribbean ranged from 44 per cent in St Lucia to 85 per cent in TT.

The IDB report recalled to mind an observation made some 30 years ago that what Dr Eric Williams had intended at independence as provision of free service to the public by qualified professionals in government was lapsing, and, inch by inch, was being taken over by clever entrepreneurs in the private sector. At a cost.

In a brilliant and well researched article published last weekend, Helen Drayton, an experienced former bank executive, asked a question that has been hovering in the minds of business-community spokespersons for many years, and debated by public-service mandarins for equivalent generations.

The question is: are the service commissions of any real use in today’s transitioning economy? Are they providing value for money?

There is an exorbitant cost to the country of a public service criticised by the citizens who have no choice but to depend on it, while suffering what is often criticised even by top managers within their own ranks as rude, condescending and inefficient service which they do not have the power to discipline. As I recall Dr Williams's orations at the time of independence, one at least of the purposes of the service commissions was to ensure that the quality of government services, which he envisaged as befitting a beneficent socialist state, would be to safeguard that quality through monitoring and mentoring.

And what has been the outcome? The power of the commissions has grown as the population has, and government has had to invest more and more money in staffing, monitoring and budgeting for the enormous pension benefits for its employees and their families, as well as to service such critical facilities as healthcare, education utilities (water, sewage, electricity), infrastructure (roads, bridges, land and air transport) social services, cleanliness and sanitation in public areas.

From the time of Prof Gordon Draper’s analysis of needed structural reform, experts have seen the staffing as being vastly overdone, “over the top” in numbers and recruitment slyly based on political favouritism in hopes that party votes would result, increasing demands for an adequate ROI (return on investment).

And the result? Most of their functions have been privatised. Security firms were established to replace weakened and no longer trusted police services, which are seen, with a few exceptions, as neither able to protect nor serve; privately owned and structured schools in almost every community, from nursery schools to tertiary colleges, as government schools are devalued, the majority seen as turning out various grades of illiteracy, spotted by rare brilliant children, supported by unheralded but dedicated teachers who refuse to be crushed by dictatorial government bureaucracy; private hospitals have taken over from inadequately managed, staffed, maintained or even equipped public hospitals, where, for every success, four failures are mourned.

Even the Prime Minister and most of the elite in and outside the government services go abroad for medical care even more expensive than the best available locally and send their children abroad to complete their tertiary educations.

Efficient and dedicated professionals miraculously still exist in the public service, but fewer and fewer, as the best become disillusioned and succumb to the recruitment seductions of the private sector. As a result, access to their expertise has risen past the income resources of the elderly, the lower income groups and the most needy.

What do the service commissions do to improve the services they were appointed to maintain and improve? What are our most important concerns? Crime and the cost of living? How do the protective services stack up there?

Mrs Drayton’s research revealed the Commissioner of Police’s salary and conditions of employment for overseeing the productivity of some 20,000 staff reporting to her. Mrs Drayton, having set herself to produce a very professional analysis based on modern job-evaluation systems (with which she is very familiar), notes that the Salaries Review Commission, in valuing the CoP’s worth, deliberately set it lower than that for other heads of government organisations with a fraction of the CoP’s staff and responsibilities, such as the public library, Niherst and the Environment Commission.

Then it provided her with inadequate resources, burdened her with pre-colonial systems of staff recruitment such as promotion by length of service, not competence; then encouraged the public and her subordinates to criticise her performance after little more three months in office.

It shows up the built-in inefficiencies and weaknesses that the entire architecture of the public service is founded on and, in its own interest, refuses to change.

There are more recent concerns which are perhaps premature to go through here, prompted by the decision announced by the Minister of Finance to go ahead with the new property tax, which will be run by the communities from which the taxes are gathered, apparently, to establish an entire new public service in each of 18 regional centres, staffed and governed, or so we are told, from the current authorities.

Given the lack of trust in the existing structures, how will they be monitored to avoid inefficiencies and abuse?