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Public sector productivity

Thursday, June 14, 2018

From time to time we have lamented the persisting decline in productivity in this country, which is an issue in both the public and private sectors. Productivity is generally defined to mean measurable quantitative or value output per unit of labour input over a specific period of time. If people work longer hours or there are fewer holidays, there will be an increase in overall production but not necessarily an increase in productivity.

There is need to focus on productivity in the public sector for a number of reasons. The first is that the public sector (inclusive of state enterprises and statutory authorities) is the largest employer in the country and its operations are a dominant factor in the economy. Low productivity in the public sector would therefore mean significant loss of output nationally and reduced competitiveness. The second is that the public sector provides the legal, statutory, regulatory and infrastructural framework for the functioning of the private sector. Improved efficiency and productivity in public sector agencies will translate to a larger and more efficient volume of overall business activity and consequently greater sustainable employment creation.

There are myriads of instances when representatives of business, including small and large manufacturers, firms in the service industries, importers, land developers, builders, civil contractors and retailers etc, are required to visit a government department or agency many times to have a matter resolved. It stands to reason that the less time a business entity has to spend in gaining approvals from state agencies, in obtaining relevant licences or in persuading the utilities to deliver, the more time and effort is available for concentrating on business activity. Indeed, one of the criteria used by potential international investors in making a decision on country location is the regime for ease of doing business.

Then there is the question of the general delivery of services with some degree of efficiency to the public through the engagement of low level technology. Let us take one example from the health sector, where the physical storage, retrieval and distribution of patients’ handwritten files is a sort of bureaucratic saga. Files are many times lost, patients’ records are not manually updated or there is truncated medical history which affects the quality of the doctors’ assessments. One wonders why are doctors not provided with laptops which are available to even primary school students. Patients’ histories will be available with the tap of a button and will be electronically updated during each visit.

Another reason for emphasis on public sector productivity is that lack of productivity is quite visible and its ubiquity has a huge impact on the psyche of workers nationally via the demonstration effect. It is to a large measure responsible for the decline of the work ethic and the inculcation of a pervasive sentiment that there is no need for conscientious effort when indolence is rewarded. The sight of 20 CEPEP workers engaged in various make-believe motions towards the brushcutting of 100 feet of road verge could hardly be demonstrative of productive effort, not to mention female employees with pieces of broken branches sweeping non-existent grass. This is not an argument against providing employment for unskilled workers. However, their efforts could be more usefully channelled into more meaningful tasks such as work in agriculture, tourism and minor drainage infrastructure.

Given the significant deleterious effect of low productivity on national output, competitiveness and socio-economic development, the question is why has nothing meaningfully been done by successive administrations to address the problem. This is, however, the subject of another discourse.

The political directorate has no authority, moral or otherwise, to exhort the nation to halt and reverse the trend of declining productivity if it is not willing to lead the way and take some unpopular decisions. It may be argued that, with rising levels of unemployment, the priority is to preserve jobs and not pursue enhanced levels of productivity. However, it is by boosting productivity levels, promoting higher levels of efficiency and creating a facilitatory environment for investment activity that sustainable jobs will be created. Such an agenda requires the endurance of some pain in the short term for longer term national benefit.

Trevor Sudama


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