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Public sector reform needs a political answer

Feb 17,2018 - Last updated at Feb 17,2018

His Majesty King Abdullah recently urged the government to speed up current public sector reform efforts, adopt policies to improve the performance and accountability of public servants against measurable indicators, and strategically push forward to improve the efficiency of the public sector as a whole.

The government and “experts” have convened on several occasions since the Royal instruction to look at tangible and quick steps towards achieving this strategic and critical objective.

In Arabic, we have a saying that can be translated as “everyone contributed his or her bucket’s worth”, and we can safely say that everyone who matters — and everyone who does not — did. But the conversations around this issue have, yet, to delve deep enough or to seriously tackle the most important challenge within this task.

A former senior public official recently commented that there needs to be a recognition that the public sector’s services perform and deliver at a satisfactory level of efficiency only because if they did not “we would have sewage seeping into our water pipes, and people would be dying of treatable and common diseases”.

This is important to understand because if we were to agree with its basic premise — and in my opinion we should — it would immediately change the baseline of our efforts and planning from one that assumes a damning “nothing works” mindset, to a let’s “improve and smarten up” the sector one.

This means that we would focus on tackling the public sector’s bloated size, reducing the pockets of inefficiency in the bureaucracy and improving its speed and functionality rather than trying to rewrite the whole public sector completely.

This is definitely not an easy task and in fact experts refer to it as a “gargantuan HR effort”. But in essence, it is a technical undertaking and to achieve it would require the contracting of technical know-how and government commitment to implementation.

We already see that the government has incorporated mechanisms for measuring performance of employees within the labour law [under review now in Parliament] and installing a monitoring process based on “carrot and stick”. The government has also moved ahead with computerised services, such as online payments and tax collection, and the Civil Service Bureau is discussing with the government how to improve recruitment standards and processes.

The government is, therefore, seen to be well on track in adopting and institutionalising the “remedial steps” necessary to improve the HR mechanisms and some service delivery of the public sector with noteworthy efficiency and very little fuss.

The core challenge the government faces, and I believe the most critical concern on the minds of most reformers in Jordan today is how to deconstruct the informal culture within the sector that is based on an “entitlement” mindset, and the bigger question is how to do that without immediately destabilising the country.

There is a decades-old and well-known relationship between the Jordanian government and citizens, seen as necessary to support the relationship between the regime and the citizens in early days of state formation, which had allowed Jordanians to believe that they are entitled to a paid position in the public sector as a reward for their allegiance. This has bred and fostered a sense of entitlement to a hierarchal access to government employment opportunities based on origin, family relations and exchange of political favours.

In time, this institutionalised mechanism of nepotism has “morphed” into a truly unique socio-economic give-and-take parallel universe, in which Jordanians operate without reference to any formal structures of citizenship, rights, responsibilities, merit and especially without reference to rule of law., This has become a fully functioning, alternative and informal “system” in its own right.

The public sector became the facilitator and central feeder of the informal system, and a critical contributor to the perpetuation of a culture that undermines mandated state mechanisms, but more importantly fosters what can even be described as a form of systematic corruption. This may have been an unintended outcome, but this is what reformers today must challenge in order to affect tangible improvement in public sector culture and service delivery.

Let me give an example. If one owned a private sector company or led a civil society organisation in Jordan today, then he or she would have to employ an accountant or financial manager with “wasta” in the tax office, social security and multiple other government offices necessary to “facilitate” their business affairs with the government. Therefore, companies and CSOs, more often than not, would look at the “social credentials” of any prospective employee within this informal structure instead of looking at his/her professional credentials alone.

Once employed, the bartering system would require the company or NGO to return the favour and provide access to its sector’s “network” for employment, contracts etc., and, vice versa in a cycle of benefit that continues as long as the “spider net” is maintained. Companies that do not participate struggle.

One could argue that all corporate work is built on networks and relationship building with partners, but what I am describing here is more complex — relationships that are built on family and tribal credentials to facilitate economic benefits to the individuals and their social networks rather than the recognised professional networking, which we see globally in corporate cultures, and which is conducted mostly transparently with benefits accruing to the institutions and organisations rather than individuals.

Not only does this system ostracise and keep out the groups that do not belong to the established social circles traditionally hogging employment opportunities in this sector, but also denies opportunities to many performers and law abiders who may come from smaller tribes or families traditionally kept out. In parallel, it also shifts the focus of the public sector employee from delivery and performance to an overemphasis on social relationship building and feeding the “bartering” system. In effect, these small circles of “mutual benefit” arrangements are undermining the benefits of having an efficient public sector that is open to big business.

It is this culture that hinders and scuttles investment, stops innovation in its tracks, exaggerates bureaucracy and gives the public sector the reputation of being inefficient. Our effort to upgrade public sector performance requires a strong political will to do away with the practice of using employment in the public sector as a reward for quiet allegiance. The criteria for the recruitment pool into entry level, as well as middle and senior management of the public sector, must now become based solely on merit and competition for the position.

I suspect that many employees in the public sector would themselves be relieved if, and when, they are mainstreamed into a system of meritocracy and performance with efficient controls on the informal “favours” system. Jordanian youth, who are seeking professional advancement and recognition, will appreciate the opportunity to compete for the positions that best suit their set of skills and education.

Public outcry can be expected from these circles, that have come to expect and claim privilege. However can we really continue to allow the country to remain politically hostage to these? Answering that question correctly would be the beginning of the answer to the public sector’s woes.

 

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THANKS NERMEEN FOR YOUR COMPLEMENT AND EVEN SO YOUR DEDICATION TO THE WOMENS ISSUE, YOUR HONEST AND BOLD REASONS WHY THE CURRENT STATUS QUO IN JORDAN ARE NOT SUSTAINABLE. THE FACT IS THAT IT LOOKS LIKE YOU ARE THE ONLY WOMAN IN JORDAN THAT HAS THE COURAGE AND DEDICATION FOR YOUR PEOPLE AND COUNTRY. EVER SINCE I READ YOUR FIRST ARTICLE, YOU HAVE BEEN CONSISTENT, HOPEFUL, AND IN FACT FIGHTING FOR THE COMMON GOOD OF ALL JORDANIANS BY EXPOSING THE TRUTH AND SIMULTENEOUSLY TRYING TO FIND A SOLUTION TO MANY TABOOS THAT NO ONE WANTS TO TOUCH. THE QUESTION THAT I HAVE FOR YOU IS THIS; ARE YOU THE ONLY WOMAN IN JORDAN WHO SEE THAT JORDAN CAN NOT GET ANY WHERE WITHOUT THE PARTICIPATION OF WOMEN, INCLUSION OF THE EXCLUDEED MANY, THE CONFOUNDING ISSUES OF CURRUPTION, WASTA MENTALITY AND THE IDEA OF BUILDING A NATION UNDER ONE UMBRELLA. HAVE YOU NOT SEEN THAT YOU ARE AN OUTLIER THAT DESPERATELY NEED MORE OF YOU TO CHANGE THE STATUS QUO?. YOU DO NEED THE VOICES OF MORE WOMEN, THE SUPPORT OF THE GOVERNMENT AND YOUR PEOPLE TO OPEN THE EYES AND MINDS OF THE SOCIETY AT LEAST FOR THE SAKE OF AVOIDING ECONOMIC COLLAPSE. I DO NOT THINK THAT MANY JORDANIANS ARE AWARE OF YOUR DEDICATION, LOVE FOR YOUR PEOPLE AND COUNTRY AIMED AT " MAKING JORDAN GREAT AGAIN ". IT IS AMAZING TO RECALL THE AMOUNT, LEVEL AND QUALITY OF YOUR CONTRIBUTION FOR YOUR PEOPLE WHO ARE STILL SLEEPING ON THE WHEELS AND YET I HAVE NOT READ ONE SINGLE ARTICLE FROM OTHER WELL EDUCATED AND RESPONSILE JORDANIAN WOMEN AND SO HOW DO WE GET THEM TO WEIGH IN ON THE POLITICS AND POLICIES THAT WILL EVENTUALLY COME BACK TO BITE THEM, THEIR FUTURE AND THEIR CHILDREN. IT IS EVEN MORE ASTONISHING TO SEE THAT THE JORDAN TIMES WHICH YOU WORK FOR IS THE ONLY THE INTERNATIONAL VOICE OF THE PEOPLE FOR THE PEOPLE AIMED AT CHANGING THE STATUS QUO. ON MY OWN PART, EVER SINCE I GOT MARRIED TO A JORDANIAN, GOT TO KNOW JORDAN, ESTABISHED SOME HOW IN JORDAN, I HAVE THE MORAL OBLIGATION TO PLAY MY PART DEFEND THE INTEREST OF THE COUNTRY, ITS PEOPLE TO SEE MY IN LAWS TAKE THEIR RIGHTFUL PLACE IN OUR MODERN CIVILIZATION. AND SO TO RESPOND TO YOUR BEING GRATEFUL TO MY PARTICIPATION, ALL THAT I HAVE TO SAY IS THAT MINE IS MINE AND OURS IS OURS AND JORDAN IS MINE IN HEART AND SOUL WHICH IS A REMINDER THAT I HAVE A LOT TO LOOSE AND EVERY THING TO GAIN IF JORDAN CAN EMULATE THE MORAL DOCTRINE OF OUR MODERN SOCIETY. JUST LOOK AT THE ISRALI POWER AND PROGRESS TODAY AND NO ONE CAN QUESTION THE FACT THAT THEIR PROGRESS IS A FUNCTION OF THEIR VALUES FOR THEIR INTERNATIONL FRIENDS WHICH MOSTLY IS A FUNTION OF CLOSE RELATIONSHIPS WITH INLAWS, FAMILY THREES AND LINKS, EMPOWERMENT OF WOMEN WHICH THEREFORE IMPLIES THAT I CAN NOT SIT ON THE SIDE LINES WAITING FOR INVITATION WHEN IN FACT, I HAVE THE MOST IMPORTANT INVITATION THAT COUNTS, MY WIFE, SON, FRIENDS EVEN SO MY RESPECT AND LOVE FOR THE ROYAL FAMILY. HISTORY IS THE ONLY FACTS THAT WILL ALWAYS REMEMBER ME FOR WHAT I AM.

Thank you for your response.

Dr. Samuel, first let me thank you for continued support and for being a regular reader of my columns. I did not even go to the issue of how women are treated in the public sector because that is such a huge issue and a challenge to women's growth and empowerment. Recent gender audits of the public sector showcase an ingrained informal practice of keeping women under-training, under-engaged and under-utilized. I will perhaps write on this specifically soon.

Paul. I agree about the constant interference from "power bases" and I will not just limit it to the royal court since we know that the security authorities and big private businesses also have inroads, which is why the column speaks generally of the public sector staying hostage to an informal system of favours and bartering and yes you are right "instructions" from power brokers

I'd be more impressed with the author if she had addressed the elephant in the room - none, sadly, do, and that is Jordan's tragedy. I've experienced, first-hand, the sheer frustration many talented (Jordanian) public sector officials have gone through by this, almost, daily interference of what is expected of them - and it only takes a few targeted words - by a member of the 'chosen' few to bring a well thought out proposal to its knees. If the Government cannot be allowed to govern effectively (crippled by these constant Royal Instructions), then what purpose does this body fulfil, other than, as the author highlighted, to 'prevent sewage seeping into our water pipes'?

AS USUAL, NERMEEN HAS CONTINUED TO DREAM OF A DAY WHEN ANY OR ALL THE PUBLIC POLICIES OF JORDAN CAN BE FAIR, BASED ON MERIT AND CITIZENS WHO HAVE THE BEST INTEREST OF THE COUNTRY AT HEART RATHER THAN BEING DRIVEN BY THE
WASTA MENTALITY, TRIBALISM AND WHAT I MAY GO ONE STEP TO INCLUDE " THE LINAGE OF THE 'NEXT' MENTALITY. " ONE NEED NOT TO DO ANY CASE CONTROL STUDIES TO SEE HOW DEEP ROOTED THIS CANCEROUS TUMOR IS BUT TO LOOK AT THE FACTS. THE EASIEST WAY OF DOING THIS IS TO START AT THE JORDANIAN INSTUTITONS OF HIGHER EDUCATION. CAN WE NAME ANY HEAD OF DEPARTMENT, DEANS, OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENT THAT COMES OUTSIDE THE CYCLE OF THE USUAL SUSPECTS? HOW ABOUT THE HEADS OF THE PUBLIC SERVICE DIVISIONS OR IN FACT THE CYCLING AND RECYCLING OF MINISTERS IN ALL THE GOVERNMENT. IS THERE ANY WELL EDUCATED MAN OR WOMAN THAT COMES OUTSIDE THE USUAL CONCENTRIC CIRCLE IN THESE AGENCIES? IF THIS IS IN FACT CORRECT, HOW CAN THIS YOUNG WOMAN CONTINUE TO DREAM DREAMS UNDER THE SAME CYCLE BASED ON THE SAME ENTRENCHED RULES OF THE GAME. THE SEEDS HAS BEEN PLANTED AND ENTRENCHED TO THE POINT THAT IT WILL BE VERY DIFFICULT TO MODIFY AND RE-TOOL WHICH COULD MEAN MANAGEMENT BY MERIT THAT MAY RETIRE AND BENCH MOST MANAGEMENT POSITIONS OF EVERY BRANCH OF THE PUBLIC SERVICES. IT WILL MEAN RANDOM SELECTIONS FROM THE POPULATION BASED ON MERITOCRACY THAT MAY IN FACT EXCLUDE THE USUAL AND PREFERED NAMES THAT I SEE ON THESE POSITIONS FROM GOVERNMENT TO GOVERNMENT. SAD TO SAY THAT THE SYSTEM IS AT THE POINT THAT I AM AFRAID TO STATE THAT THE ONLY VISIBLE SOLUTION AT THIS TIME IS TO CONTINUE TO KICK THE CANS DOWN THE ROAD RATHER THAN GIVE AND TAKE BY BRINGING THE YOUND AND TALENTED BRAINS INTO THE SYSTEM NO MATTER WHO THEIR FATHER AND MOTHER ARE, WHERE THEY CAME FROM, THEIR FAITH AND RELIGION.
DESPITE MY INTERPULATIONS AND EXTRAPULATION OF THE SICK ECONOMIC SITUATIONS, THERE ARE SIGNS OF HOPE COMMING FROM THE FACT THAT THE STORIES BEHIND THE STORY ARE BEGINING TO TAKE THE CENTER STAGE AMONG JORDANIANS IN NEWS PAPERS, TALK SHOWS, MEETINGS EVEN FROM HIGHER OFFICES IN JORDAN. THIS IMPLIES THAT EVERY JORDANIAN AGREES ON THE DIAGNOSIS AND WE HOPE THAT IN NO TIME WE WILL ALSO AGREE ON THE TREATMENT .

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