By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The government's planned $130m investment in the civil service will "waste taxpayers' money" unless the correct "checks and balances" are put in place, a governance reformer has warned.
Robert Myers, the Organisation for Responsible Governance's (ORG) principal, warned in a recent Tribune Business interview that the Minnis administration would simply repeat past practices of "throwing money" at problems unless it developed performance indicators to track whether its spending was translating into improved public services delivery.
Speaking out after the government revealed plans to spend $130m over a four-year period, including the current budget year, to bolster civil service skills and ensure better public sector performance, Mr Myers said costs were already "way too high for the service we are getting" and effectively represented a "double whammy".
Describing public sector productivity, efficiency and accountability as "appalling", he added that such expenditure threatened to add to an already "horribly concerning" fiscal deficit produced by Hurricane Dorian without producing the returns desired by the government or Bahamian taxpayers.
While acknowledging that the $3.4bn in damages and economic losses inflicted by Dorian were outside the Government's control, the ORG chief said The Bahamas will soon be confronted with a choice between taking "cutbacks and pain now" or waiting for this to be imposed by the likes of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
He said the projected 4.4 percentage point increase in the government's direct debt-to-GDP ratio this fiscal year, which is estimated to close at 64.4 percent, "screams we're going in the wrong direction" without more corrective action Dorian notwithstanding.
While $30m of the government''s civil service spend will occur this fiscal year, K Peter Turnquest, deputy prime minister, conceded late last month that $23m of this sum - some 76.7 percent - has already been expended on the one-off lump sum payment that public servants received pre-Christmas.
Fearing that the future $100m, to be spread over the next three fiscal periods, will fail to produce the desired effect, Mr Myers told Tribune Business: "Let's get a little bit more detail on how they plan to spend taxpayers' money to improve the public interface.
"The productivity, accountability levels and efficiency levels in the public sector are appalling, and the service provided to the public is appalling. At what point is the public sector going to be accountable to the people it serves? You're spending our money, so it would be nice to understand what you're spending it on."
Mr Turnquest, in his late January address to the House of Assembly, had justified the unplanned spending by saying: "While the Government continues to foster greater discipline in its fiscal affairs, there are some challenges that it cannot ignore, one of which is the pressing transformation of the public service to achieve greater effectiveness in the delivery of public services through skills enhancement and other human resources initiatives."
Mr Myers, while calling for greater detail on where and how these funds will be spent, also urged the Government to implement performance benchmarks so that improvements can be measured to see if the initiative is having the desired effect.
"How are we measuring that performance?" he asked. "What has to be achieved so that we're not throwing money at things like in the past? Let the people understand. If you suggest we need to pay for this then tell us what we're paying for and how we're going to monitor the performance measurements, and how that's going to make it more efficient and on what schedule so that we're not continuing to spend and nothing improves."
While agreeing that public service delivery has to be improved, Mr Myers continued: "The bigger concern is what are the checks and balances for performance measures so that we're not wasting this money. This $100m that we're going to spend on improving the public sector, let's have a plan for that.
"The accountability, productivity and efficiency in the public sector, and the service they provide, is generally pretty poor. I'm not saying there haven't been improvements; the Passport Office is running better, but work permits, driver's licenses and car licensing is still appalling, and building permits and inspections are still appalling. All of that stuff is nowhere near the level of efficiency it needs to be.
"We have to have continued vigilance on accountability and efficiency in the public sector and the delivery of services. The cost is there but the service is not, and costs are way too high for the service we are getting. Everybody I've spoken to would tell you, and they tell me, that labour costs are too high. That tells you they are over-staffed for political purposes, productivity is terrible or both."
Mr Myers added that the fiscal deficit's $540m increase beyond the 2019-2020 budget's initial projection of $137m to $677.5m was "horribly concerning" even allowing for the need to rebuild Abaco and Grand Bahama in Dorian's wake.
"When you keep doing this at some point you're going to hit a wall," he told Tribune Business. "I understand the difficulty in it, but if we don't make some tougher choices with regard to public expenditure we're going to hit a wall and the likes of the IMF, Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and World Bank are not going to give you a choice.
"They'll tell you what happens. Look at Jamaica, look at Barbados. We have to accept we have some cutbacks and pain now, or deal with it later. The public sector is going to have to knuckle down and deal with this stuff. It's a double whammy. It's costing us and we're not getting the service out of it. It's a double whammy to people that pay the taxes that it's not efficient and not accountable.
"We're being pushed dangerously close to an unsustainable level. The debt-to-GDP ratio up almost five percentage points in one year screams that we're going in the wrong direction. I understand the hurricane has caused issues, but without it we have to continue to do better."