By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Government’s top official has branded key civil servants as “extraordinarily weak”, with The Bahamas’ “40 percent overstaffed” public sector ranking among the Caribbean’s worst performers.
The criticism by Camille Johnson, the Cabinet Secretary, of the Government’s deputy permanent secretaries is disclosed in a just-published Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) assessment that gave The Bahamas a score of only 19 out of 100 for civil service development and quality.
The report, which said the Bahamian civil service has “room for significant improvement”, revealed that Ms Johnson - who heads the service - said it was “overstaffed by as much as 40 percent”. And she was not the only senior official holding major concerns about its efficiency and effectiveness.
While the quote attributed to the Cabinet Secretary is an indictment of the second-highest civil service rank, she was backed by Elise Delancey, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Public Service, who said the public sector has “a hollow middle” and lacks vital skills essential to its smooth functioning.
The report, The state of the civil service in The Bahamas, revealed that only Suriname’s civil service is performing worse than this nation’s public sector, which was ranked behind Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad & Tobago and even Guyana on performance qualify. “A score of 19 out of 100 shows that The Bahamas has significant room for improvement,” it concluded.
Benchmarked against seven main performance indicators, The Bahamas came close to 50 percent on just one - merit - which assesses how professional the civil service is in practice, and its ability to remain free from corruption and political influence.”
“This score (47) is based on the extent to which the work of the Public Service Commission (PSC) mitigates risks associated with arbitrary decision making for recruitment, selection and promotion, and other forms of bias including political persuasion,” the IDB report said.
The civil service fared less well, though, when it came to “functional capacity” and “management capabilities”, where it achieved a score of just seven out of 100. “In the case of ‘functional capacity’, The Bahamas faces significant gaps in instrumentality related to job descriptions, performance standards, performance management, and pay structure,” the report found.
“The low score for the ‘management capabilities’ index is attributable to weaknesses in personnel management, alignment, and stakeholder engagement, and lack of enforcement of strategic management.”
Among the multiple issues identified by the report are:
• The “extremely complex” civil service salary scale system used by The Bahamas. This consisted of 341 pages on 2014, with the number of grades for specific jobs varying from four to 24. The situation appears to have gotten worse, not better, with the 2016 Salary Book featuring 453 pages.
• The IDB report exposes a situation where teachers transferred to other parts of the public service remain on the Ministry of Education’s payroll. Not only was this boosting the Ministry’s already “inflated wage bill”, but it was unable to hire replacements because those transferred had not formally left their posts, thereby exacerbating teacher shortages.
• Despite the dire need for greater training of public service officers, the Ministry of Public Service’s 2017-2018 budget in this area was just $150,000 - equivalent to just $7.50 for each of the civil service’s 20,000 members. It had asked for a $1m allocation, and the IDB report’s authors said they were unable to meet with the Ministry of Finance to find out the reason for the variance.
• The Government’s difficulties in hiring qualified technical professionals were highlighted by the fact engineers in the public sector earn 78 percent less than their private sector counterparts. Accountants and teachers in the public sector were shown as earning nine percent and seven percent less, respectively, although IT managers and nurses in the public sector were said to earn more.
• The civil service’s costs as a percentage of Bahamian gross domestic product (GDP) steadily increased between 2014 and 2018, with the highest jump coming in the 2017 election year.
With the Christie administration seeking to solve its employment and political problems by expanding the public sector, civil service wages and salaries rose from 7.3 percent of GDP in 2014 and 2015 to 7.6 percent in 2016 before spiking to 8.2 percent of GDP last year. This bill was projected to grow further to 8.4 percent of GDP in 2018.
While VAT’s 2015 introduction helped reduce civil service wages and salaries as a percentage of revenues, they have hovered between 29.7 percent and 32.4 percent of total government spending over the past give years.
“According to the most recent PSC report, at the end of 2016, the central government employed 20,310 workers,” the IDB report said. “In addition to persons employed through the PSC, as of November 2017, the full complement of government employees - including those whose services are retained through temporary contracts and/or by government corporations - stood at 38,435. This represents a 6.3 percent decline from the pre-election figure.”
Data published in the report showed the public sector’s share of total Bahamian employment declined from 20 percent to 19 percent over the six-month period from May-November 2017, or by almost 2,500 workers, amid several downsizings and the expiry of short-term contracts.
While Bahamian civil service’s cost ratios were not out of line with other Caribbean nations, the IDB report’s quality and performance findings will reinforce concerns that the goals of improved governance, public services and “ease of business” are being undermined by continued shortcomings in the public sector’s workforce.
“According to the IMF, non-essential temporary workers account for as much as 30 to 40 percent of public employees,” the report said. “The head of the public service [Ms Johnson] indicated that the public service is overstaffed by as much as 40 percent.
“The permanent secretary in the Ministry of Public Service [Ms Delancey] indicated that, while the staff numbers were high, the civil service had a ‘hollow middle’ and lacked essential skills.
“The Cabinet Secretary [Ms Johnson] and several permanent secretaries, as well as external stakeholders, reaffirmed this assessment of the lack of essential skills. In fact, the Cabinet Secretary described the cadre of deputy permanent secretaries (DPS) as ‘extraordinarily weak’.”
These comments to IDB assessors confirm long-running concerns about the dearth of middle management talent in the Bahamian civil service - a complaint that also extends to the private sector. This is especially critical to good governance in The Bahamas, given that these middle managers are responsible for the smooth implementation of policy and operation of all government ministries, agencies and departments,
While the Government’s 2017 election manifesto promised to transform civil service efficiency, and ensure all positions were held on merit, the IDB report said its policies lacked an anchor. It indicated that this could be provided by the National Development Plan (NDP) drawn up under the former Christie administration, but which the current government has yet to embrace.
“At this point, there is no overarching plan governing decisions on staffing in the various ministries and departments,” the IDB report said. “The Minnis administration has only been in office since May 2017, and there has not yet been an official pronouncement on its position on Vision 2040 (the NDP), which was published for comment in December 2016.”
While permanent secretaries had begun developing strategic plans for their ministries, the IDB said these “have not been definitively aligned to the draft NDP because the current administration has not formally adopted the NDP”.
It added: “Furthermore, there was no evidence of an established institutional framework to facilitate cross-ministerial collaboration at a technical level. Without such a framework, progress toward the Government’s stated intent to improve the country’s ranking in the World Bank’s Doing Business Report could be adversely impacted.
“In the absence of an approved NDP and strategic plans for the various ministries, workforce planning is rudimentary. Further, it has been reported that across administrations public sector jobs have been utilised as a welfare function.
“The leadership of The Bahamas Public Service Union (BPSU) posited that politics rather than strategic priorities are the dominant factor in determining the size of the various ministries,” the IDB report continued.
“As a result of the ad hoc approach to workforce planning, staffing policies, decisions and practices do not necessarily reflect national or sectoral strategic priorities. Both internal and external stakeholders opined that some ministries are significantly overstaffed, especially with unskilled workers.”
The IDB report blamed the absence of a human resources information system (HRIS) for the Government continuing to pay workers even after they had left its employment.
“The lack of a comprehensive HRIS has also been associated with administrative loopholes and inadequate checks and balances, resulting in frequent instances of officers continuing to receive salaries even though they are no longer on active duty,” it confirmed.
“In some instances, steps have been taken to recover the funds once the error has been detected. However, such efforts have not always been successful.”
Pointing to the lack of succession planning within the Bahamian civil service, the report added: “The outcomes of these deficiencies include a ‘hollow middle’ or lack of key skills and competencies among mid-level public officers, as well as the need to bring back retired senior officers on contract to fill skills gaps.
“This practice is likely to continue for some time since the current peer group of permanent secretaries and other senior officers is projected to be significantly depleted by retirement in the next two to three years.”
With no standard job descriptions, Ms Delancey, the Ministry of Public Service’s permanent secretary, told the IDB team “that people with the same rank may have completely different functions and scope of responsibility”.
This resulted in “confusion” within civil service ranks, and the report added: “An officer who appears to be more senior based on his/her job post may be carrying out a far more junior role than someone who holds a more junior post. This situation raises grave equity considerations.....
“An anomalous situation was identified related to the transfer of officers, particularly those appointed as teachers. Specifically, teachers have been transferred to other ministries while retaining their substantive appointments within the Ministry of Education.
“As a result, they continue to be paid by the Ministry of Education even though that ministry no longer has the benefit of their service,” the IDB report added. “Since the position is not vacant, the Ministry of Education is unable to hire a replacement teacher unless a new position is approved.
This practice may be a contributing factor to the Ministry of Education’s inflated wage bill as well as the shortage of teachers. Both internal and external stakeholders referenced this practice, and it was confirmed by the PSC.
“The issue is so significant that the PSC’s current strategic plan lists the streamlining of the existing model for the appointment, promotion and transfer of teachers as one of its strategic priorities.”
The absence, of performance standards for the civil service, while long-flagged as an issue has yet to be addressed, the IDB report found. And, “despite the Government’s stated commitment to invest in the training of its human resources, the training budget for the Ministry of Public Service, which has centralised responsibility for training and development, was $150,000.
“With an estimated staff complement of 20,000 established officers, this translates into an annual allocation of $7.50 per employee. The initial budget request was $1m,” it said. “This is another issue which we were unable to explore with the Ministry of Finance.”