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Why do governments fail?

Grace Virtue

Wednesday, January 16, 2013    

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Because they are designed to fail. They are rigged to fail.

Take "design" simply to mean how a system is constructed. Take "rigged" to mean something constructed in a haphazard manner.

The construction of government, particularly at the executive level, is entirely open to haphazardness and a makeshift approach to management of State affairs. We barely need a root cause analysis to tell us that our hit or miss approach is responsible for why Jamaican governments succeed only about 25 per cent of the time.

The Westminster system seems to work for Great Britain, but Jamaica is not Great Britain, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. There is tremendous validation here for those scholars who have long called for our institutions to be reflective of who we are and the context in which we live.

Pardon the cliché, but the chickens are coming home to roost. The masses are restless. The vultures are circling and even the self-appointed oracles sound only like empty vessels, nothing more, and nothing less.

To her critics, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller is living up to their worst caricatures of her.

Clearly, there are decisions and processes that she must take responsibility for as head of the executive, but there is no need to gleefully stomp her into the ground. She is a product of the system. She has defied many of its idiosyncrasies and now she must function within it. Just like others before her, she must work with what she has and she must do so in the most difficult circumstances for the global economy.

But, let me illustrate a little just how insane the system is.

For six years I have started my car with barely a turn of the key, but recently it began murmuring a little first. Guessing that the battery, at least, might be at the end of its life,

I took a preemptive step and drove to an auto repair shop. They checked it out, gave me a list of things that needed fixing, a hefty bill, and a two-and-a-half hour time frame to get it all done.

Deciding not to wait, I crossed the street to the bus stop in front of Kindness Animal Hospital where my dog, Penny, is a patient. After her check-up late last year, the vet called to say she had worms; I needed to give her three doses of a prescribed medication and, in three weeks, take back a fresh stool sample for re-evaluation.

With Jamaica and why things don't work on my mind, the hospital behind me, and the auto repair shop in front, I somehow began thinking about what would have happened if I had taken the car to the vet for a diagnostic check, and conversely, if I should take the jar with the dog's poop to the mechanic and ask him to check for worms.

The imagery was so funny, I thought seriously of taking the stool to the mechanic, at least to test his reaction.

I did not.

I had a feeling that if he could not get me out of the shop fast enough, he would call the police. The police would likely come with an ambulance and I would end up in a hospital for a mental health evaluation, and possibly make the evening news.

Taking cars to vets to fix, and dog's poop to mechanics to test for worms is perfectly analogous to what the system forces us to do.

The Cabinet, the executive arm, is largely drawn from a pool of party activists who make their way up the hierarchy and become parliamentarians. Some are professionals, but most end up responsible for areas that they do not understand.

Prime Minister Simpson Miller heads the current Cabinet. Her ministers are drawn from what the system allows. Working with the limited pool available, she makes choices based on individuals' loyalty to her, their years of service to the party, and their ability. More likely than not in this very same order and just like all her predecessors have done.

So, Ronald Thwaites is appointed minister of education. Thwaites is not an educator but he is a fine thinker and speaker, energetic and hardworking, with a passion for fairness and equality. He will succeed in leaving a deformed ministry with at least one straight foot.

Note that his predecessor, Andrew Holness, shares some similar attributes. He, too, would have made a difference to education.

It is purely the luck of the draw that these men were available.

Why was Peter Bunting appointed minister of national security? Then again, why not?

The system allows for either question to be asked and weighed equally.

There is a real question to be asked about his understanding of crime, for example, as not merely as a quantitative but a qualitative issue -- one that is about extreme human suffering; the level to which people feel safe or not; and the extent to which improved legislation, changing attitudes and improved social conditions, rather than just hard policing, combine to paint the picture his numbers represent.

In like manner, why was Lisa Hanna appointed minister of youth and culture? Why is she a minister while Julian Robinson is not? What has she demonstrated so far, aside from how badly "young" people need adult supervision?

And, if we have a ministry of youth, shouldn't we also have a ministry of mature/old people?

The point is, in a rational world, our system is completely lacking in rationality.

Yes, we have accomplished some things since Independence, but we could have achieved threes times as much with a clearer vision, a targeted approach, functional structures, competent leadership, and a culture that promotes a genuine meritocracy.

Our constitution does not allow for Cabinet members to be appointed from the general population. Further, the Cabinet composition is non-standard. Leaders often resort to a "shuffle" as the answer to non-performance -- a further waste of time and money.

Until there is systemic reform, the executive will continue to feature only a few competent and committed people and a good many opportunists and charlatans.

This cuts across party lines.

It is disingenuous, reductionist and an exercise in futility, therefore, for anyone to pretend that the JLP, voted out of office a year ago for its incompetence, has the capacity now to do better than the PNP.

Really, we can blame one party vis-à-vis the other, we can sing and pray, sprinkle salt, or cock's blood, or we can confront our problems and fix them.

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