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EDITORIAL: Time to address system failures


EDITORIAL: Time to address system failures

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THERE SEEMS TO be a widespread problem particularly affecting the general administration of aspects of our affairs. That problem or disease refers to the improper maintenance or, lack of maintenance of our buildings or, more tragically, some of our operational systems.

The recent reports of raw sewage water on the main highway in Christ Church and the five-hour shutdown of a critical section of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH) are but two recent examples of what can go wrong and the consequences that may flow when there is improper maintenance of our critical plant.

It is an aspect of our public administration of which we cannot be proud because one incident of failure is one too many; and the problem is more grievous when, as in these two instances, the consequences can be so far-reaching.

We are not saying that improper maintenance does not take place in the private sector but in those cases the market imposes its own severe penalties on those operators who are guilty. That is the reason why the operators of the private transport sector are so keen to ensure that their vehicles are rested on Sundays and critical maintenance done to ensure that their vehicles are in fit operational state come Monday mornings. Downtime will hit them in the pocket, while their competitors are ferrying fare paying passengers to and from work or to social events.

The owners of private sector operational systems and buildings which are allowed to fall into disrepair will also fall victim to the market forces which will cost them loss of business and custom or gain them a bad reputation. In either case, loss of patronage will soon cause a closure of the operation. No such automatic system of penalties applies to public sector operations and hence the taxpayer and the public interest fall victim and suffer and eventually pay the bill. This ought to be unacceptable.

Let us return to transport. The scandalous state of affairs which relates to the number of Transport Board buses out of operation could not possibly exist in the private sector. Open and full-scale competition would have put the board out of business; but the absence of such full-blooded competition does not prevent the achievement of a rational, efficient publicly funded transport system evidencing the highest principles of efficiency consistent with a “social service” – based transport system.

In our view there is need for a strict and enforceable system of accountability to ensure that those responsible for the public sector operations understand that heads can also roll when reasonable standards of efficiency are not achieved because actions would then breed consequences.

Dr Henry Fraser, Professor Emeritus of UWI, spoke recently of the need for maintenance as part and parcel of the care of the QEH. His point was well made, the more so in light of certain events at that health care facility which should have been a major wake-up call for enforced public sector maintenance procedures at such critical facilities. The major energy supply and the standby generator capacity should not both be vulnerable to localised internal events such as a burst pipe flooding a single room. The shock of this occurrence is only barely mitigated by the quick public reassurances that remedial action has been taken.

The most disturbing aspect of this maintenance problem is that it spans political administrations and seems endemic in the system. Indeed, that is the problem. It is for this reason that we urge clear systems of maintenance be established with effective penalties applied to those who unreasonably breach the systems and endanger the public interest.