Our public service

A few weeks ago this newspaper reported that part of the reason why the Food and Drugs Analyst Department is unable to perform important aspects of its work anywhere near as effectively as it should has to do with a scarcity of skills. This is nothing new to the department. Five or six years ago it was reporting the identical problem. It is, of course, an open secret, that the public service has long been afflicted with the problem of scarce skills. There are quite a few reasons for this and the one that comes readily to mind is the fact that the public service is not held in particularly high esteem by qualified job-seekers, who believe that their qualifications provide them with better-paying options. We know, for example, that entry level positions in the public service have long been less of an option for school-leavers who do well at CXC unless their immediate circumstances take them in that direction. Indeed a cursory glance at low-level public service positions is almost certain to reveal that qualification levels are not what they used to be. They are lower.

In the main, it is government which is responsible for this state of affairs. It is government that has been responsible for the systematic suppression of incentive – mostly, though not exclusively through wage and salary levels – for qualified youngsters to join the public service and, more importantly, to make careers therein. Increasingly these days, we witness instances in which traditional public service recruitment procedures are set aside and replaced by contractual arrangements that are often underpinned by nepotism and are detached from considerations of merit. At the same time, while government has long jettisoned collective bargaining as the accepted vehicle for wage and salary negotiations in the traditional public service and replaced it with a routine handout, the recruitment of ‘contract workers’ is frequently underpinned by considerably more lucrative remuneration.

The net effect of these lopsided arrangements has been a near complete erosion of the esteem in which the public service was once held. Arguably, its biggest crisis reposes in its seriously compromised recruitment procedures which, in large measure, have become hostage to political whims.

Some of the current arrangements employ the vehicle of ‘super salaries’ and assorted ‘perks,’ which, inevitably, stick in the throats of traditional public servants who continue to earn peppercorn wages and salaries.

Nor does what are sometimes understandable instances where securing scarce skills justifies different recruitment procedures, excuse the wider nepotism that is often in evidence in what is in fact a politically controlled process. On the other hand the circumstance of scarce skills in the public service has a great deal to do with government’s own chronic faiulure to invest in structured and continuous multi-level training programmes for its public servants in order to reduce the need for the haphazard recruitment of ‘scarce skills.’

However much we continue to make the argument for poor pay not justifying either less than conscientious effort or corrupt practices on the part of the public servant, the fact of the matter is that absurd wage levels coupled with the low esteem in which our public servants are held has given rise to chronic disenchantment and is almost certainly linked to instances of inefficiency, sub-standard service and corrupt practices.

In the matter of corruption it has to be said that corruption in public service institutions would appear to feed off of what has long been a wider national problem that appears to be in evidence at the political level.

For the record, the point about a disenchanted and under-motivated public service is not being placed exclusively at the door of the present political administration. The PPP/C administration, no less than its predecessor, has simply been unable to resist the temptation to exert as much political control as it can over the public service. Under the previous PNC administration public servants, for the most part, fared no better and collective bargaining on the issue of wages and salaries remained circumscribed by what the then political administration considered ‘affordable.’ Now, like then, government has worked hard to decouple public servants from trade union representation.

All of this, of course, leaves us much worse off as a country since it can hardly be denied that some of our chronic problems stem from a public service that seriously underperforms in some areas and which (again in some areas) have become nests for corrupt practices. Perhaps more worrying is the fact that up until now we have had no clear and definitive signal from the political administration that it wants to hold the public service up to a higher order.

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