Improving public sector reform
THE ADMINISTRATION of Government services in Barbados has long been the subject of scathing criticism for being slow, and unresponsive to the real needs of members of the public. In effect, the public service is criticised at the point of delivery of its services.
In some cases, people say that management in the public sector requires urgent attention. In others, the criticism is levelled that public sectors employees are without repercussion for non-performance. Still in other cases, fingers are pointed at the processes practised to deliver the said services.
For example, the public may be asked to complete an application form in one building, while the associated fees are paid at another building or floor (often not in proximity) before the form can be accepted back at the first building. There are even cases where select types of payments are accepted at some agencies and not others. So, in some cases the criticisms are warranted.
The issue with public sector management
The World Bank in its article The World Bank Approach To Public Sector Management 2011-2020: Better Results From Public Sector Institutions defines public sector management as “upstream core ministries and central agencies, downstream bodies including sector ministries, and non-executive state institutions”.
They go on to outline that “upstream bodies include core ministries and agencies at the centre of government, such as the Ministry of Finance and the offices that support the head of government, which have functions that cut across sectors. Downstream bodies include both sector ministries and agencies, including education and health providers which deliver and fund services under the policy direction of government.
They also include a diverse group of more autonomous bodies such as regulators and state-owned enterprises and corporate bodies which, in many countries, still provide the majority of infrastructure services despite extensive privatisation. Non-executive state institutions include judiciaries, legislatures and institutions such as Supreme Audit Institutions.” Interestingly, this paper makes the distinction between de facto and de jure behaviours in the public sector and that both of these ought to be subject to reform initiatives. They highlight de jure functions as intrinsic to agencies such as education, health, and finance ministries.
However, de facto activities are those which are practised on a daily basis and may be more in need of reform than the de jure activities. For example, public sector performance may not only be a function of the institution or how it is set-up, but rather the way in which things are done which may be a major source of the problem.
The issue may not be one of poor social services or an insufficient range of services, but rather that the administrative arrangements for screening, approving and delivering the social services are disjointed. So in many cases here in Barbados, we criticise certain agencies which have been created and that they are a waste of resources. However, the establishment of the agency may not be the issue; it is how the business of that entity is conducted.
The World Bank paper puts it well when it says “weak links can be found in the formal laws and procedures, but often the problem is that these formal rules are not followed in practice”.
The issue with public sector processes
So in many cases, the devil is in the detail of the processes – it is possible that some can be cumbersome, repetitive, outdated or even irrelevant. Business process restructuring is often used in an industrial engineering context and there can be some confusion about how it is applied in public sector setting. Firstly, let us understand that business process re-engineering seeks to:
1. Document the process to obtain an understanding of how work flows through the process.
2. Assign ownership of the process in order to establish managerial accountability.
3. Manage processes to optimise performance.
4. Improve the process to enhance product quality or measures If this is the case, then this methodology can definitely be applied to rectifying structural bottlenecks in the public sector.
Quite frankly, remedying process bottlenecks within a department is the easier task; the challenge with the public sector is that the process conundrum is hierarchical and sometimes enshrined in legislation…that is, there is a labyrinth of processes among departments and ministries which can be difficult to unravel.
Processes should be approached by focussing on the question “what is our ministry or department set up to do?”
Let us consider the example of a hypothetical ministry which administrates a rebates and incentives programme. What is the intended purpose of that programme? Answer: It was intended to provide enticements to a particular sector to invest in upgrades of technology, equipment, and management practices in the sector.
However, the programme is ineffective if the rebates and incentives are not reaching or being used by the sector, and if no innovations are taking place.
One way of approaching this challenge is: articulating the vision for the development of that sector, deciphering which incentives remain relevant to meeting that vision, and then uncovering whether the processes for access the rebates and incentives are unencumbered.
However, I don’t believe that the challenge is about convincing individuals about the merits of implementing business process re-engineering in the public sector, rather the challenge for public sector administrators is uncovering the incentive for departments to implement business process re-engineering and thereby improve overall productivity.
Perhaps the solution lies in adopting best practices in public sector reform from other countries. For example, the United States government has introduced the Government Performance and Results Act.
It has enshrined in law that departments should submit annual performance plans which include a summary of objectives aligned to the mission of the department; summary of current performance; comparison of performance over previous years; strategies and approaches for generating efficiencies; and a planning document which include financial statements and projections as well as performance targets and projections for future years.
So which comes first? Should we seek to engage changes to the organisation structure, de facto functions, de jure behaviours, or processes? Well, we have to begin by inspecting the mandate and organisation structure. However, like everything else these need to be consistently evaluated for effectiveness.
Please contact The Productivity Council for technical assistance in any the above areas.