T&T spends $20 billion annually–about $1.5 to $1.7 billion a month–in salaries and wages for the public sector and it is estimated that there are at least 90,000 public servants in the country.
Tens of billions of dollars have been poured into the public sector—hiring of staff and paying of salaries and wages—since Independence.
"The direct public service is $9 billion, but the rest of the people we look after and make sure they get salaries every month is another $11 billion. So, you are talking $20 billion a year in salaries and wages in the public sector," Finance MInister Colm Imbert had said last year.
According to the University of the West Indies (UWI) economist Dr Regan Deonanan, the Central Government's expenditure on wages and salaries has grown by 25 per cent over the past ten fiscal years.
Given this large payroll and staff, questions arise including: Is the public sector overstaffed? Are citizens getting value and quality service for the billions of dollars being spent? Is it feasible for the civil service and state-run companies to continue in the inefficient way they have been operating? Can they be made to run efficiently?
The problems of inefficiency in T&T’s public service include poor customer service and low productivity. Public servants have been labelled as lazy and incompetent and corrupt in some instances, and citizens complain of too much red tape, run-around and corruption when trying to get transactions done. There are too many manual procedures and not enough online services, forcing citizens to take long hours and even months to get simple transactions completed.
Public servants, on the other hand, complain about being undervalued, overworked and underpaid as many vacancies are waiting to be filled due to the long, tedious Public Service hiring process. This is in addition to some of them lacking the necessary tools and proper working condition in some instances.
The public remains unhappy and stakeholders have come out harshly criticising the public sector for its failings.
The recent Cabinet-sanctioned report on the Water and Sewerage Authority of T&T revealed that the company is overstaffed with almost 5,000 employees and the State gives this company almost $2.5 billion in subsidies annually. This has become a burden on taxpayers.
During a Parliamentary Joint Select Meeting in February on the Ease of Doing Business, Independent Senator Hazel Thompson-Ahye raised the topic of a culture of indiscipline and poor work ethic at the Board of Inland Revenue.
The American Chamber of T&T in a statement in February complained that the Customs and Excise Division was not putting enough emphasis on customer service.
Just last week, Transport Commissioner Clive Clarke admitted that there was fraud among vehicle owners accessing services in the Transport Division and promised more computerised services soon.
CEO of the UWI Lok Jack Global School of Business Mariano Browne, who was also a minister in the ministry of finance in the Patrick Manning administration, lamented that the public service's procedures are still predominantly manual and this has to change if the service is to become more efficient.
"All files must be digitalised. An example of this would be the Ministry of Trade and its implementation of the TTBizLink online platform. Look at the Licensing Division, if the police stop you on the road they should be able to go back and check if the car is registered, the car model number, and so on. That’s what they’ve been speaking about doing for the last 15 years. Unless Government follows through with those decisions nothing happens," he said.
Inefficiencies in public service a product of poor leadership—Nan Ramgoolam
Dr Rudrawatee Nan Gosine-Ramgoolam, a former diplomat and former minister of public administration who has almost 40 years of experience in the public service defended public sector employees' work ethic.
"When you wake up at 5 am and get on the highways and byways and there’s a traffic jam, where are those people going? Are they going to the beach? They are going to work. They are motivated, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed every day.
"Don’t say that public officers and civil servants are lazy,” she told the Sunday Guardian.
She believes that the challenges and inefficiencies in the public service are a product of poor leadership.
"Senior public officers, leader and managers have to know how to manage and get the best out of their staff and abide by the rules and regulations of terms and employment of service. Once they abide by that, they will have no problem with public officers. There may be some giving trouble but they would be an exception to the rule.
"Some Permanent Secretaries are a law onto themselves. Public officers are competent, they are trained and skilled. The problem is leadership to bring out the best in them."
She encouraged senior public officers to supervise staff to ensure that work is done within time, budget and of high quality.
'Lack of accountability, need for effective performance management'
A management consultant who offered Strategic Planning, Performance Management and Training and Development to Petrotrin, the Ministry of Energy and Namdevco, blamed the structure of the public service for the inefficiency.
The consultant, who asked not to be named, said, "Each ministry is headed by a minister who is responsible for ensuring his/her ministry’s legislative/policy agenda is rolled out to his/her ministry. The Permanent Secretary (PS) is the person responsible for operationalising that legislative/policy agenda as it relates to serving the people of T & T."
The consultant also spoke about the line minister who heads ministries and who often clashes with the bureaucrats that run these state agencies.
This is another reason for the inefficiencies in the public sector.
"The Government, represented by the minister, may have a certain policy direction for the ministry. This position, as in the case of WASA, may result in significant changes in the status quo to which the PS/state agency heads may have become accustomed. This sometimes leads to the conflict to the extent that the PS/state enterprise leadership may choose to support the status quo and in some cases even undermine the initiative’s possible success."
On the issue of lack of accountability, the consultant said there needs to be a better performance management system.
"The current performance management system in the ministries is generic. It does not speak to the specific requirements and deliverables for the various positions. As such, it makes it very difficult to hold public servants to account for their performance."
The consultant recommended that there needs to be a more robust Performance Management system to measure employee output and also suggested more staff training.
Economist Dr Terrence Farrell has estimated that there are currently almost 90,000 employees in the public service in T&T, not counting those ensconced in the many state enterprises and statutory bodies.
In an interview with the Business Guardian recently, Farrell suggested that T&T’s economy is in deep trouble and cannot avoid cutting the size of the public service and increasing utility rates. This suggestion has met with mixed responses.
Regarding the issue of overstaffing, the management consultant agreed that the Public Service needs to cut back its workers. "The public service is overstaffed to the extent that public servants get in each other’s way in the performance of their functions resulting in double work, inefficiency and a general lack of productivity."
The consultant, while proposing a reduction in the number of people employed in the public service, advised that the Government should be strategic about this move as the country is in the middle of an economic crisis.
"Timing is everything. Having come through a very trying year with increasing business closures and unemployment, I would suggest a repurposing of public servants into the sectors consistent with the country’s agriculture, maritime and tourism sectors and the like."
Gosine-Ramgoolam, on the other hand, criticised any positions that advocate sending employees in the public sector home saying that there should be a manpower audit of what skills are necessary and how they should be matched before anyone talks about cutting staff.
"If the public service functions the way it should with all those jokers at the top doing their work at every level, there would be so much productivity in T&T that we wouldn’t have to worry about salaries paid to workers. The same applies to WASA and T&TEC, Ministry of Health and so on."
She also warned about sending workers home during the current economic downturn and other poor working conditions.
"There will be social problems of having unemployed people. People will steal to mind their children. We will soon have thousands of educated vagrants on the streets."
Economist Deonanan told the Sunday Guardian via email that there may be negative effects from laying off public sector workers.
"In an economy where the public sector is a large employer of labour, retrenchment of this workforce without the necessary safety nets or market conditions can lead to negative effects on the labour force. This may include long-term unemployment for persons who cannot be absorbed by the private sector.
"In such a case, payments to unemployment benefits will increase, though to a lesser extent than the reduction in spending on salaries.
"An increase in unemployment also reduces national output. The negative effects of such a reduction in the public sector workforce may be exacerbated in the current economic climate."
At the end of February, PSA President Watson Duke warned the Government about making cuts to the public service. His call to public servants to stay away from work some two weeks ago, which many workers did not heed, led to the Employers Consultative Association (ECA) publicly thanking workers for going out to work and ignoring the union leader's call to stay at home.
In 2011, The PSA settled for five per cent for the period 2008 to 2010.
In 2015, the PSA has signed off on a new collective agreement with Chief Personnel Officer (CPO) Stephanie Lewis for the 14 per cent salary increase which covers the period 2011 to 2013.
At present, entry range 4 workers at the minimum wage in the salary scale are receiving $4,537. The highest salary at range 68 in the last negotiation settlement is in the range of $16,000 monthly.
In February, Imbert added that the COVID-19 pandemic had cut T&T’s energy revenues by $2 billion so far in 2021, so the Government cannot pay excessive wage hikes but just seek to maintain public sector jobs and services.
Commenting on the unions' roles and responsibilities, Gosine-Ramgoolam said it was critical.
"The unions’ role is to safeguard the terms and conditions of the employee service. The authorities should not be abusing anybody."
Trying to destroy unions, she said, would only lead to "modern-day slavery."
Modern unions, she said, however, need to change their strategy when negotiating.
The management consultant, meanwhile, added that "the traditional aggressive approaches" adopted by the union do not make for a progressive and productive relationship.
Money spent on the public service
Central Bank of T&T data shows that the Government continues to invest billions in the public sector.
Deonanan referred to data that shows transfer payments from Government revenue to state enterprises, statutory boards and similar bodies amounted to $8.5 billion (TT) in the fiscal year 2019/2020 alone.
Financing of the 2021 Public Sector Investment Programme (PSIP) highlights money spent on public sector projects.
The 2021 PSIP comprises $4.1 billion which is split between the Consolidated Fund (CF) in the amount of $2.2 billion and the Infrastructure Development Fund (IDF) in the amount of $1.8 billion.
Workers 'spirit broken'
Public sector employees are usually stereotyped as being lazy and unproductive compared to their counterparts in the private sector. The problems at WASA and other state-run entities have raised the debate about the conditions under which they work and how much they produce.
Two public officers spoke to the Sunday Guardian about their experiences in the Public Service. One has been there for roughly 25 years, the other has been there for close to two years.
A worker who holds the position of acting cook and preferred not to be named said public sector employees work hard but sometimes the poor conditions under which they are forced to work result in low productivity and poor customer service.
At 52 years old, she has been in the public service for almost 25 years cooking and teaching dance in youth camps over the years. She is currently at the Ministry of Youth Development and National Services.
She is happy with the contribution she has made over the years.
"I am also a Best Village tutor. I was at the Girl’s youth camp in El Dorado and I do dance and drama and I was able to bring that to the camp with the help of the directors. It was a pretty exciting and meaningful time for me to see young persons react to culture. That camp was closed down in 2011."
Despite positive experiences, she also spoke about the darker side of working in the public service.
"There are some conditions that create the illusion that some public officers are lazy and don’t know about customer service. An example is people who talk about the cashiers at the Licensing Office and say they never there and other problems. When they’re there they don’t know how to talk to the public. Supposed they short staffed and this officer has been doing double work? Supposed the AC or fan in the office isn’t working? The public doesn’t know these things."
She said managers need to talk to workers more to find out what their problems are and to look for solutions.
She said some of the managers in the public services are arrogant and they do nothing to motivate lower-level workers.
The worker compared it to a type of caste or class system and called it "range-ism" based on the different ranges in the public services.
"Management has been a challenge. You know how there are classism and colourism? I call it ‘range-ism’ in the public service as once you are not at the higher ranges, they don’t give you the respect you deserve for your ideas.
"Management in the public service would be the Permanent Secretary and then the heads of department. So in their minds, when they look at me, I’m just a cook and I don’t have a degree or Master’s, and they don’t take my recommendations seriously. The typists and cooks, people like us are in the lower range."
Her current salary is $6,800 monthly which she says is "not much". She believes that not all the blame should be put on the Government for the small salaries of some public officers and said that the union should also take the blame as it is their job to properly bargain on behalf of employees.
"I am paying a union to work for me and PSA has not been doing what they should be doing on behalf of workers."
A psychiatric nurse who has been working at St Ann’s Hospital for close to two years is passionate about his job and the work he does to help patients but at times feels disgruntled by the system.
The St Ann’s Hospital falls under the North West Regional Health Authority (NWRHA).
The nurse who is now 32 years spoke to the Sunday Guardian on the condition of anonymity.
"I studied and trained for years at the Psychiatric School of Nursing before I was employed here. After completing my studies, I waited for two years before they called and I was happy as this is what I wanted to do. I soon learned that as a psychiatrist nurse, you’re forced to work towards your ideals in a not so idealistic environment."
Some of the problems at the hospital he listed include shortage of nurses on staff, lack of water, a shortage of some drugs at times, and not enough support from management to come up with solutions.
He gave the example of how administrative inefficiencies can fatally affect nurses.
"There are times that medication run out and we have to use substitutes. I work on an aggressive ward where patients physically attack nurses. Imagine when you don’t have medication to give the patients, you could be in problems. Some days we have no water and the toilets are overflowing, yet we have to give optimum performance."
Despite their hard work and sacrifices, he feels as if nurses do not get the respect they deserve from the public.
"You are required to help some patients like bathing, getting dressed, brushing their teeth. You must be able to form a therapeutic relationship with every patient you guide. That’s the difference between a general nurse and a psychiatric nurse. It is said that some people in the general public refer to psychiatrist nurses as glorified babysitters."
With his basic salary and allowances, he earns $9,200 monthly which he says is still less than other professionals or even other workers in the other services like police officers.
He said when he first came into the system, he thought he could have changed everything but he now realises that he is just a cog in the wheel in a broken system.
"When I just came here they use to call me ‘best nurse’ as I thought I could change everything. Then the times reach when you realise the system is hard to change. My spirit is broken."