RIGHT OF CENTRE: Small steps but it’s the PM’s call
David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, recently made a passionate plea against public sector officials who are too risk-averse and too willing to say “no” instead of “yes”, calling instead for a “buccaneering, deal-making, hungry spirit” to get things done”.
He cautioned, as reported in the Press: “I want every minister and every official to understand that the dangers are not just in what you do but what you don’t do – that the costs of delay are felt in businesses going bust, jobs being lost, livelihoods being destroyed.”
Mr Cameron must be feeling the same level of frustration as many in the local private sector who daily lament the mountains of red tape and the inordinate delays that seem to stand in the way of the simplest of tasks.
This sense of frustration is no doubt shared by those in the public sector who understand that as a nation we are competing for scarce resources, and that business facilitation is key to economic growth and to maintaining our standard of living.
Retired permanent secretary Theresa Marshall suggests that our civil service is based on a rigidly hierarchical model more appropriate to colonial times, and predicated on the understanding “that only those at the top of the pyramid were considered to have the education and access to information necessary to be decision-makers”.
The model fails an era of rapid change, when swiftness and flexibility in decision making are imperatives, even if a “buccaneering, deal-making, hungry spirit” might be considered improper.
Some progress has been made and must be acknowledged. The ability to file income tax and value added tax returns online has been a significant improvement over the old manual filing system, even though several teething problems (some avoidable) have underscored the need to proceed carefully.
I have been impressed by the quality of service offered by Invest Barbados and from most reports, interaction with agencies such as the Licensing Authority and the Immigration Department is much more customer-friendly than in previous years.
But the good examples are far too isolated.
Efforts at increasing the ease of doing business have followed from the Public Sector Reform project, but again the success stories are arguably the exception rather than the norm. It has been convincingly argued that the systemic change that is required will not occur without the direct intervention of the Office of the Prime Minister, who must actively champion the case for reform and monitor its implementation.
The change from a “no” culture of jealously guarding access to scarce Government resources to a “yes” culture of business facilitation must be taken seriously, and the difficulty can not be understated – old habits die hard.
Business facilitation is not only an issue in the public sector, as anyone who has recently tried to open a new business account with a local commercial bank might attest.
And local attorneys at law will surely have to adopt more of the progressive practice management techniques and practices of their colleagues in other jurisdictions if we are to arrest the slide in our competitiveness and attractiveness among competing jurisdictions.
The World Bank’s Doing Business 2013 publication ranks Barbados at number 88 of 174 countries based on ease of doing business, and 8th of 13 Caribbean countries. The ranking is based on expert views of regulations affecting ten areas in the life cycle of a business – starting a business, dealing with construction permits, getting electricity, registering property, getting credit, protecting investors, paying taxes, trading across borders, enforcing contracts, and resolving insolvency.
Barbados, incidentally, was ranked 47th out of 50 “high income” countries as defined by the World Bank. This is a sobering result, which will no doubt help to put business facilitation on the front burner for our most senior policymakers.
• Andrew F. Brathwaite is Immediate Past President, Institute of Chartered Accountants of Barbados.