Top of the agenda for Barbados today is reform of the public sector. There are two ways to go about this: piecemeal or wholesale. In the piecemeal approach you pick one or two agencies and try to make them more efficient at what they do. In the wholesale approach you try to change the model for the entire public sector.

The piecemeal approach is appealing because it tends to be fast and focussed and, if it works, produces quick fixes. The wholesale approach scares a lot of people because it seems so ambitious and too long-term.

While the two approaches are not incompatible — you can embark on wholesale reform while simultaneously focussing on one or two critical government entities — there are compelling reasons to adopt the wholesale approach.

In the first place it avoids the situation where you unwittingly waste your time transforming an agency that no longer has any reason to exist. Example: the National Conservation Commission (NCC). Over the years efforts have been made to make this agency more cost-effective by allowing it to sell plants and landscaping services. But there is no reason why the NCC should be even de-bushing far less landscaping today. There are so many private landscaping businesses out there that all the NCC ought to be doing is deciding which entity landscapes/de-bushes which areas and to what specifications. In other words, purely a supervisory or administrative function requiring a miniscule staff (of course the reality is that the NCC has become a valuable resource for political patronage at taxpayers’ expense).

In the second place, wholesale reform will produce far greater value for the country in terms of reduced government expenditure (at least 20%), more effective and less costly provision of an essential social safety net, greater governmental enabling of activities that drive economic growth, and greater strategic thinking capability within the public sector.

But it is pointless going about wholesale reform in the classic public sector manner, i.e. by setting up an elaborate commission which will have long scheduled meetings, take elaborate minutes etc, or by employing foreign and local consultants. What you need is a small task force which will brainstorm in several informal sessions a blueprint for what government in Barbados in the 21st century should be doing.

The task force should be headed by a member of the Cabinet who has some background in the public sector, and should comprise no more than twelve members who are chosen (and this is crucial) not necessarily for any positions they may hold or for their political allegiances but in their personal capacity as bright, creative, critical thinkers (we have a good pool to choose from in Barbados). There should be no minutes, just an evolving blueprint that reflects in a coherent, rational shape the ideas discussed at each session and e-mailed to participants the following day.

To arrive at a blueprint the team should ask the following questions without any reference to what presently exists: what precisely should be the purposes and functions of government in Barbados in the 21st century? By what agencies/entities should those functions be carried out? And how should these agencies/entities be structured?

One reason for asking these basic questions is to find out the extent to which institutional inertia is responsible for government continuing to carry out functions which have ceased to be relevant or which are carried out in a manner that is totally out of synch with a drastically changed environment, or which are carried out inefficiently by a hodgepodge of different agencies. Just think of some of the current activities of the Ministries of Agriculture and Transport.

Another reason is to imagine novel forms of governance which increase citizen participation and jump-start us into the future. In other words the group should envisage its task as designing from scratch a blueprint of government for Barbados today. Once a blueprint is drawn up, say after six weeks, wide consultation should take place, starting with existing public servants, and including political parties, churches, business and trade unions bodies, academics, etc, as well, of course, as the general public. This process should take three months. A revised blueprint should then be submitted to the Cabinet by the minister heading the task force for approval in principle, and then to Parliament for discussion and noting. A special committee, co-chaired by the permanent secretaries of the Ministries of Finance and the Civil Service should then be appointed by the Cabinet to work out a detailed plan of how to move from the present situation to the one proposed in the blueprint over a five-year period, with time frames, costs and resources identified. This should take twelve weeks. Then would follow any legislation that is necessary.

It’s essential to do the actual transformation over a minimum of five years in order to shed staff in a phased and humane manner. One could expect the public service staff to shrink by at least 25 %.

Of course you wouldn’t have to dismantle all existing state agencies. Some may well fit into the new model.

There are several issues we must tackle in changing the model of governance in Barbados.The public sector needs to have the minimal permanent staff required to carry out its functions. This means that many ongoing functions now undertaken directly by government should be carried out by private sector entities under the direction of the government, e.g. road repairs and maintenance, repairs to water delivery systems, de-bushing and landscaping, management of Harrison’s Cave, the annual organisation and management of Crop Over, and so on. This also means that the provision of some services should be contracted out as needed, e.g. the drafting of complex pieces of legislation, the promotion of specific types of investment and tourism, the undertaking of specific types of international negotiation, and so on. In other words you are looking at a small permanent establishment that is engaged primarily in policy creation, supervision and regulation, thus leaving the actual implementing activities as far as is possible or consistent with financial probity to non-governmental entities.

The public sector needs to act expeditiously. The vast majority of governmental decisions take long not because of necessary compliance with regulatory requirements but because of unnecessary red tape and deficient management systems. All regulatory agencies should be set up, structured and staffed so as to produce the necessary permissions in the shortest possible time with the greatest degree of accountability, transparency and politeness.

All public entities should have productivity standards and state of the art electronic information technology designed into their structures.
The whole process of recruitment, promotion and remuneration needs to be geared:
(1) to identify, groom and promote those capable of leadership;
(2) to identify and weed out non-performers and malingerers; and
(3) to continuously reward those who do a fair day’s work without necessarily promoting them to positions to which they do not aspire or for which they are not suited or qualified. And all this in a transparent manner.

One important aspect of the reform process would be the rationalisation of governmental functions. For example, the provision of a social welfare net is a vital function of government in order to protect the unemployed, the ill and disabled, the poor, homeless etc. But right now that function is carried out in a variety of ways and by a variety of agencies with high overhead administrative costs. Moreover, it is not targeted to best effect. Of course, along with public sector reform must go reform of business governance (e.g. lawyers should stop policing themselves) and trade union reform.

But that is another matter.