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ON THE OTHER HAND – Our state in crisis

Peter Laurie

ON THE OTHER HAND – Our state in crisis

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The Barbadian state is in crisis.
The crisis is twofold: a fiscal crisis in which there’s a persistent gap between revenue and expenditure along with a high level of debt; and a governance crisis in which the actions of Government are wasteful, tardy and ineffective.
Both crises have the same origin: a bloated dysfunctional bureaucracy unable to meet the demands of 21st century Barbados; the same effect: deteriorating customer service, the stifling of innovation, and an excessive dependence of Barbadians on the state; and the same solution: public sector reform that reduces the size of the state in terms of staff and expenditure by at least 25 per cent, reorganizes and streamlines management, and creates new forms of governance.
NB: it’s the system that’s dysfunctional, not the people who work in it. They’re even more frustrated and demoralized than the public.
How did we get into this mess?
The main culprit is institutional inertia: organizations and their activities persist long after the need for them has ceased to exist.
Fifty years ago Government had to do many things because the Barbadian private sector was undeveloped and controlled largely by a few big enterprises. This is no longer the case, though one conglomerate still dominates distribution. 
Worse still, although national priorities have changed, the bureaucracy remains out of sync with them. For example, the Ministry of Agriculture is still staffed to service an economy in which agriculture was 90 per cent of the gross domestic product.
The public service is also saddled with obsolete systems of management and archaic regulations resulting in low productivity, bad morale and poor delivery of services.
Moreover, over the years an unholy collusion of empire-building senior bureaucrats and patronage-bestowing politicians has led to an excess of unproductive jobs and activities.
The time is past when we might tinker.
What we need is wholesale reform.
We face a challenge: transferring superfluous and unproductive (not of their own doing) workers from the public to the private sector in as humane and least disruptive a manner as possible, while instituting new systems of management and governance. We might also target social programmes more carefully and rationalize welfare transfers, perhaps by a simple reverse tax credit.
This is best done under the direction of the Social Partnership, which should appoint a small task force to draw up a blueprint of the purposes and structures of Government for 21st century Barbados.
Then come up with a six-year plan to move from the present morass to the projected structure, with the aim of reducing staff and expenditure without mandatory layoffs.
But apart from reducing costs and increasing efficiency, we have to reinvent governance for the 21st century. 
Fortunately, most Barbadians agree on the role of Government: the private sector is the best creator of jobs and prosperity, and Government is the best guarantor of social justice and equity. Economic dynamism and social well-being are allies, not enemies.
Barbados is poised for global success provided we offer even more high-value services. We’re tops in Latin America and the Caribbean in human development, second (to Chile) in economic competitiveness, and 17th in the world in least corrupt states. But Government, as presently constituted, is a brake on economic innovation and entrepreneurship rather than a facilitator.
We must also create a more participatory Government that taps the ideas, energy and civic spirit of a well informed citizenry.
For example, the Coastal Zone Management Unit, which has been doing a fantastic job, apparently plans to spend $60 000 to have the sand cleared from beside and under the South Coast Boardwalk. But this is an ideal project for those who live near to and use the boardwalk to volunteer to do under the unit’s supervision at no cost to taxpayers.
We must discourage Barbadians from expecting Government to do everything for us, and let us do things for ourselves.
We must also exploit the huge underutilised value of the Social Partnership as a governance mechanism.
Peter Laurie is a retired diplomat and a commentator on social issues. Email [email protected]