by Larry Smith
I think most of us would agree that the country could do with a strategic plan that looks beyond our five-year electoral cycles and pushes the public sector to deliver.
As the Inter-American Development Bank notes, “without such a strategy, policies, programmes and investments (are) decided on an ad hoc basis, and (are) vulnerable to short-term political pressure."
So the IDB has agreed to fund the development of our national plan - backed by a central planning unit in the Office of the Prime Minister - with a $450,000 grant.
This project will provide the basis for "a modern investment management system and road map for informing future public and private investment decisions,” the IDB said.
The prerequisites for success are political will combined with technical focus. But as we know only too well, the politicians who oversee planning processes are generally "fickle, moveable and largely interested in satisfying their power constituencies."
That caveat - plus the lack of institutional capacities - are big reasons why we never bothered to develop and implement a long-term strategic plan. But this is now a very fashionable thing, and almost every country has one.
Jamaica began reforming its public service in the late 1990s and started work on its Vision 2030 strategy in the mid-2000s. The plan sought to address high public debt and low economic growth.
According to the World Bank, Jamaica jumped 27 places to 58 among 189 economies worldwide in the 2015 'Doing Business’ ranking, and the country’s credit rating has improved as its public debt has declined.
In 2001, former British prime minister Tony Blair famously created a central office to strengthen the government’s capacity to deliver on key priorities.
According to the former head of Blair's Delivery Unit, governments should make better use of performance data to counter public cynicism about politics.
"The focus on results, the ability to set priorities, and to be driven by what works, ought to be a really fundamental part of government,” Sir Michael Barber said recently.
Last year, Barber published a book called How To Run a Government So that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don’t Go Crazy. It was described as a manual for “processes that enable governments to deliver ambitious goals."
His overall conclusion was that results are more likely to win over public opinion than glitzy campaigns. Providing genuine information on actual progress is the best political defence, he argued. And ideally it should be data that is outside the control of government.
Fundamental to this approach is the legitimacy of the state, which derives from a demonstration of serious intent in implementing agreed policies and managing public resources ethically and effectively. In other words, political will.
For the past several months, the National Development Plan Secretariat (led by Felix Stubbs, Dr Rodney Smith and Dr Nicola Virgill-Rolle) has been collating national data to produce a status report.
This will be followed by what the secretariat refers to as “a national conversation” carried out through meetings, workshops, surveys and social media to distill a shared vision.
All of this will be incorporated into “a comprehensive policy framework that will guide government decision-making over the next 25 years."
The process is well behind schedule, but the status report was recently delivered during a special VIP event at the College of the Bahamas featuring the prime minister.
The state of the nation report was summarised by Felix Stubbs, a former president of IBM Bahamas who contributes to many civil society initiatives.
He outlined four main concerns that the national plan would seek to address: governance, the environment, the economy and human capital.
The Bahamas, Stubbs said, currently enjoys a "demographic gift" in that two thirds of our population is of working age, and life expectancy is on an upward trend. But other statistics paint a more complex story.
Some 15% of the working-age population is jobless - including a third of all young people - and too many are undereducated, unskilled, unproductive and unhealthy. And workforce productivity is actually falling year by year, which acts as a drag on economic growth.
"There is a recognition that the Bahamas must build up its human capital — its population’s education and work skills — so that everyone can contribute to the economy,” the report says.
This is hardly a radical view. Civil society spokespeople have been calling for urgent action on these fronts for many years, with barely a nod from the public sector.
The report goes on to note that the Bahamas has most of the institutions and traditions of a stable, multi-party democracy, “but public sector reforms are needed for governments to earn the trust of citizens."
In particular, the limited use of plans and performance measurements are "operational challenges (and) gaps in reporting to parliament and the public."
The report added that "enactment of freedom of information legislation will encourage more transparency and accountability because such legislation grants the public a general right to access records held by public authorities."
After Stubbs had ploughed through his lengthy remarks, it was the prime minister’s turn. As usual he gave a rambling, upbeat and sunny presentation - with frequent affable references to people in the audience.
The sum of his peroration was an outline of the types of issues and choices that the Bahamas would have to make in order to implement a strategic plan over the course of a generation. Ironically, he had a lot to say about governance.
A lot was also said about keeping politics out of the national planning agenda. That is of course a necessary thing, but in my view politics is not the biggest challenge to achieving progress.
That dubious credit goes to the fabled inability of our political elites to tolerate serious change. We talk endlessly about "good governance”, when it is standard practice not to account for public policy decisions and execution. The people know this, and it breeds a deeply held cynicism.
A willingness to pursue change could easily be demonstrated by simply publishing public documents and answering policy questions substantively. That's just one little suggestion that would help validate all the hard work by people of goodwill like Felix Stubbs.
For example, last week State Finance Minister Michael Halkitis reluctantly gave a vague account of how the $16m was arrived at to pay off CLICO policyholders. He also promised a full account later - something we have heard many times before from many government spokesmen.
In fact, public officials have studiously avoided any discussion as to how CLICO funds were able to be expatriated in the first place. So here we have a taxpayer bailout of a few consumers, with no public accountability whatsoever.
Why do we have to rely on sound bites to grasp such an important (and apparently non-political) issue? Doesn't this relate to fairness, fiscal responsibility, political openness and good governance? And aren't those the values that the national plan is supposed to be based upon?
What about the government’s intention to repeal the 2010 Planning & Subdivisions Act? The reasons appear to be that it puts too many restrictions on cabinet's private dealings with developers and requires too much inconvenient public consultation.
We could continue ad nauseam with similar examples.
So the $450,000 question is this: how does a national strategic plan address such issues, considering that the political elite has no interest in change and there is little sustained pushback from the people?
Innovative thinking will go nowhere without political will. If you can show me the slightest evidence of political will, I will recant at once.
The point is that it would be very easy for the political directorate to demonstrate its intentions in this regard. Failing that we are dealing with just another expensive poppy show.