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Fixing T&T

Thursday, May 10, 2018

“You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today,”said Abraham Lincoln, acclaimed as one of the greatest United States’ presidents. There is ample evidence that we need that type of intervention in T&T.

Sunday’s Express editorial labelled last week a “disaster week” for the Police Service. Raffique Shah suggested that he would have labelled the article, ‘Police Service a disaster zone’. How would we label recent events in matters pertaining to the Chief Justice, or the several “recent” gaffes at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or at the Ministry of Sport and Youth Affairs? How do we reconcile 93 per cent enrollment at primary school, but a CXC success ratio of 40 per cent or less, on a continuous basis?

Similarly, how should we treat the comments from a senior RHA official indicating that they had not hired house officers in three years despite 200 doctors graduating every year?

Yet there are backlogs for surgery in key areas. And the Health Minister was recently on a “recruiting trip” to Cuba. The Minister also noted the mismatch between speciality areas offered by the RHAs and those requested by the young doctors. What of the unopened Couva Hospital and the others being built in Arima, Point Fortin and Sangre Grande? What of suspended hip surgeries due to mismatched parts?

Or for that matter, incorrect information being supplied to a foreign rating agency for a routine annual review. And in the state enterprises; how is the country to reconcile the financial and operational disaster that is Petrotrin; or WASA or the Port Authority?

These matters are symptomatic of institutional decline and the widespread rot that must be addressed if T&T is to meet the demands of the 21st Century.

This means that we must first acknowledge the institutional issues to properly diagnose the cause and deploy required remedies. No administration has done so since the early 1990’s.

Indeed, each administration has come to office “to rescue the treasury, to stabilise the economy, root out corruption and to take care of the poor and vulnerable”.

“Vote for me and I will set you free” could well be the slogan for either political party.

Finance Minister Winston Dookeran said that he had stabilised the economy in 2011. In reality, energy prices had risen, masking the fiscal imbalances and the underlying difficulties.

When prices declined in 2014, Finance Minister Larry Howai promised to correct the fiscal imbalances in 2016; after the election in other words. He left the situation much worse than he had found it.

In today’s mid-year budget review, Minister Colm Imbert is expected to announce an economic turnaround based on increased gas production figures and higher oil prices, occasioned by the reimposition of sanctions against Iran. In other words, nothing has changed; the fiscal balances remain unaddressed as the country enters a new election season.

Ultimately, the strength of a country is built on the capacity of its citizens to work productively and efficient, effective functioning institutions.

The weaknesses highlighted above are emblematic, not exhaustive.

They require immediate attention and prioritisation if we are to lay the foundations for growth and development.

It has been all too easy to blame the last administration without taking any concrete steps to address the fundamentals.

So how do we address the situation?

First, let us start by being realistic. We have assumed that by changing ministers, we will get ministries to function. Ministers are powerless people, made even more powerless if they lack management experience. They can fire no-one, and they can only change policy at Cabinet. Ministers then must work with the resources that exist in each ministry. If anyone is of a different opinion, I highly recommend that they look at a couple episodes of the series “Yes Minister”.

Improving output levels begins with small changes. To start, ministers must be tasked with output objectives which will help them to focus on critical issues as opposed to PR. Whilst it is understood that urgent matters will crop up, focusing on outcomes will help improve the performance of the minister and the ministries.

This approach requires a re-tasking of the way the public service and state enterprises perform, as these are the implementing arms of the Government. In practical terms, the Procurement Act has rubbished the distinction between procurement agency and ministry, as they are both required to perform in the same manner.

Structurally, however, there is a great difference between being employed by the state as distinct from a state enterprise.

These are not revolutionary ideas.

We are great at writing reports and recommendations but not implementing them. There are the Demas and Draper reports, the World Bank Public Sector Reform Project of 1996 by way of reference.

But above all, we need leadership to take on the task and a disciplined management approach to producing positive outcomes on a continuous basis. We have avoided the responsibility for long enough. It is high time we start fixing T&T. Leadership is about doing the right things; management is doing things right.

The Police Service is but the tip of the iceberg.

Mariano Brown


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