Public services challenges
by Walter Maloney
The quality of life in these islands of the Caribbean depends in no small measure on the quality of public services.
The Caribbean is a paradoxical tapestry of rich resources, inventive humanity, gross inequalities and persistent levels of poor health and deprivation. Against that backdrop the public services of the future must not continue to provide a safety net for the vulnerable, but make a coherent contribution to a stronger healthier, economically viable and more equitable society.
The declining scale of that challenge is exacerbated by the expected drop in revenues; change in demographics, an expected increase in demand for Public Services, and an ever growing expectation of what public services should deliver.
Therefore our thinking has now to be informed by a new ethos. And central to that ethos has to be the conviction that public services exist to support a fair and equal society and to protect the most vulnerable.
While public services do not determine the nature of Caribbean society, they however reflect the ethical foundations of our societies and help to shape our development. If we ignore this we do so at our peril, for any reform which does not embrace this ethos could result in the erosion of the collective nature of social responsibility, which has long been a defining characteristic of our Caribbean countries.
If we accept what I have said then it is clear that our system of public service delivery is in need of significant transformation. Above all we need to design and encourage the many new approaches that we are already harnessing and utilise the resources and energies of a significant number of countries across the Caribbean.
What distinguishes these new positive approaches is that they are grounded in people’s lives and the life of communities. Typically, people, communities and services work together to decide priorities and how to achieve their delivery while the focus is on fitting services to people, “not people to services”. They also maximise all the resources and assets available and the process itself builds capacity of all those involved.
It is important to recognise that the underlying financial challenges facing the future delivery of public services are not solely, or even principally, a consequence of the current budgetary situation. Obviously, the financial and economic crisis that began in 2007 is directly responsible for the sharp deterioration in revenues available to our respective Governments, but delivery of public services also reflects long standing needs in our societies that are not being met or satisfied.
The greatest challenges, as I see it, facing the delivery of public services is combating the negative outcomes for individuals and communities arising from deep rooted inequalities. This challenge, although not being new, has failed because public policy has failed to resolve it, despite political initiatives and the strong growth in public spending in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I therefore proffer that part of the problem has been a failure to prioritise preventive measures, a weakness which traps individuals and whole communities in a cycle of deprivation and low aspiration.
The facts are that in most of our countries the gap between the top and the bottom of the distribution in key outcomes such as income, employment, health, education and safety is significant.
Health, life expectancy and household income have in general improved in some of our countries. However, the income inequality gap has widened due to an increase in the incomes of 30 per cent of the populations with the highest incomes, while the incomes of the 30 per cent of the population in countries with the lowest incomes has become static.
In our respective countries high levels of public resources are allocated annually to alleviating social problems and tackling what is referred to as “failure demand” — that is demand which could have been avoided by earlier preventative measures. This is reactive spending, targeting the consequences and not the cause of inequality.
Until now we have funded that failure demand by annually increasing budgets. That is no longer a viable option. So tackling these fundamental inequalities has to be a key objective of Public Sector Reform.
Public Services and Economic Reform
Public services play a crucial role in shaping the society and economies of our countries. They make a major contribution to the wellbeing of our communities, enable many persons to fully participate in society and promote economic activity and development.
Many public services are social investments. They contribute to a better educated workforce, a healthier population, a more vibrant and resilient economy and a sense of social cohesion. They make direct and indirect contributions to our economies, since they are a major source of employment and an even greater source of private sector demand. It is a fact that a large proportion of the output of other sectors of our economies is linked to the annual public sector procurement budget.
Just as important public services have a significant influence on the quality of the business environment with a key role in planning, infrastructure, enterprise support, and investment in research and innovation. They have impact through public transport, social housing, skills developed in schools and tertiary institutions.
Public services therefore play a crucial role in enhancing opportunities to the advantage of individuals and society.
Impact of the Economic Downturn
It is inevitable that the demand for public services has risen since the economic downturn in our countries. This has put a strain on our public finances. As joblessness increases, more individuals and families become eligible for a range of public services, putting added pressure on already scarce financial resources.
The longer the economic downturn lasts the more complex are the needs for public services of those directly affected and the longer their reliance on [these] services. The speed therefore at which our individual economies recover from the current downturn will therefore have an important bearing on short and long-term demands and costs of public services.
I would like to suggest therefore:
(1) There is a need to take failure demand out of the system through preventative actions and early intervention, to tackle the root causes of inequality and negative outcomes.
(2) Work more closely with individuals and communities to understand their needs, mobilise a wider range of our people’s talents and assets in response to these needs and to support self-reliance and community resilience.
(3) Tackle fragmentation and complexity in the design and delivery of public services by improving coherence and collaboration between agencies and sectors.
(4) Improve transparency, challenges and accountability to bring a stronger focus on value for money and achieving positive outcomes for individuals and their communities.
How do we reform our public services to better deliver service?
As I tried to demonstrate earlier each country’s public service faces a lengthy period of tight financial constraint against a backdrop of mounting demand and cost pressures. So how well placed are our public services to respond to a harsher environment and what aspects need reform? The scale and direction of this crisis demand careful financial management and continuous improvement in service productivity. But it would be wrong to let our financial situation dominate our thinking.
The issues are not confined solely to operational questions of efficiency, effectiveness and value for money. We believe that the debate has to be broadened to encompass deeper questions about the design and delivery of public services, their values and ethos. We need to consider the responsibilities of those persons and communities where public services are made available.
This, of course, must include organisational cultures. We need to effect openness and democratic accountability and examine the means of control and authority. We believe that these broadened themes are at the heart of how the future delivery of public services can be improved.
In summary, we believe that substantial reform of how we deliver our services is required both in terms of the general approach taken to the provision of services and the wider governance and organisation of public services.
* The above is an edited version of a speech delivered by the President of the National Union of Public Workers at the recent 42nd Annual Conference of the Caribbean Public Services Association in Montserrat.