Business

Maximising our potential

By Dennis Chung

Friday, June 16, 2017

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While addressing an audience in Dominica, I was asked the question: “Do we need to diversify our economy in order to improve our development?” My answer was: “No, what we need to do as a region is just to be the best at what we already do.”

In other words, it is easier to get returns from improving on our current areas of comparative advantage than trying to build new areas. In Jamaica's case, for example, I always maintain that a five to 10 per cent growth rate in tourism earnings is not only easier to achieve than a 100 per cent return in a non-traditional area, but it also gives us a much greater return for our efforts.

I was also heartened by the response of the Police Commissioner of Jamaica, who said that the force wouldn't be doing anything different, but would be strengthening what they currently do. This means improving the professionalism and commitment of the JCF, and also ensuring that we address the small law and order issues which create a fertile environment for major crimes.

If the Commissioner focuses on this, then I am sure he will be able to increase the JCF's capacity and success in dealing with crime. The fact is that every time there is a major crime flare-up, we implement more “publicity” initiatives and actions which have no more than a short-term impact. This doesn't fix the underlying issues, but are merely band-aid solutions.

Similarly, in 2010 when the Public Sector Transformation Unit was introduced, I took some flak for saying that it would not have any effect on changing the bureaucracy for the better. This was based on my firm belief that efficiency in any bureaucracy can only be achieved if it happens at the micro level of the public sector bodies, not by centralising the change, thus making it even more bureaucratic.

Every year since then, until the last Global Competitiveness Report, bureaucracy continues to be the most problematic impediment to doing business. In the last report it was only outdone by crime.

From my own experience at the Jamaica Ultimate Tyre Company and NSWMA, I learned that the change in public sector efficiency can only come through proper governance and management at the organisational level, and ensuring a change in culture at the organisation itself. What has been done at the Passport, Immigration and Citizenship Agency (PICA) and Tax Administration Jamaica (TAJ) are good examples of what must be done to improve public sector efficiency.

I think that what we are finally doing will work, but the global change is going to take longer than targeting board governance and good management.

One of our failures is that we always make grand announcements about drastic new initiatives that are supposed to be the panacea to any challenge we have, and all of this is done without properly understanding and addressing the underlying cause of the problem.

In other words, we always focus too much on symptoms.

So we have been through the Suppression of Crime Act, various police squads (Eradication, ACID, etc), curfews, and a host of other crime-fighting initiatives. But while doing so, we have allowed squatting to increase and have tolerated a general breakdown of law and order.

We have also heralded GSAT as the saviour for education, and years later, when many children and parents have gone through the trauma of the exams, we discover that it is not working, which is something I have been saying for years.

In the meantime we have toyed with the future of children and our citizens as we carry out these experiments.

One thing that has worked, because we have addressed the fundamental problem, is the Economic Reform Programme. This is because for the first time in 2013 we took the decision to deal with the underlying problem of government fiscal excesses and also included all stakeholders in the solution.

The current government also took the politically mature decision not to change what was working and continued with the EPOC, ESET, and the general programme. And we continue to see the benefits.

What success we have seen so far in the economy shows us is that all that is necessary most times is just to focus on continuing the things we do effectively. So we had 13 previous IMF agreements that did not work, and the difference is that this time we decided as a country that we were going to focus on executing all we needed to do to successfully finish the current agreement.

We still have a way to go, but so far we have been able to follow through on what needs to be done. In other words, this time we haven't yet abandoned it in midstream, and we must continue and improve on this.

This is why I feel better about the statement made by the Commissioner that we need to focus on improving on what we are already doing. Because how can we proceed to do new things if we have not perfected what we are already doing?

All we will do is start doing something else and not finish it as usual, unless we change the culture.

This does not mean that doing what is to be done better and strengthening it with new initiatives and legislation are mutually exclusive. It is not one or the other, but ensuring that we do both. It is, as the Commissioner said, changing the culture in a very deliberate way to deliver better results.

So, as I said at the start, the only way we are going to be able to fix our crime problem, grow the economy, improve social conditions, and make Jamaica the place to live, raise families, work, and do business, is not by throwing out what we are doing and starting something new. Rather, we must demonstrate the political maturity to continue what is being done properly, and not be concerned about who started it.

And we must also have the political courage to take the steps necessary to do the right things in the best way possible, even if it is sometimes politically unpopular. Because I have confidence that most Jamaicans will always recognise what is right.

Over the past few days I have once again seen the respect that people outside Jamaica have for what we have been able to do, and so we owe it to them and ourselves to continue on an upward path in order to maximise our potential.

Dennis Chung is the author of Charting Jamaica's Economic and Social Development AND Achieving Life's Equilibrium. His blog isdcjottings.blogspot.com.

Email: drachung@gmail.com.

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