Unwilling to heal ourselves

As I drove home yesterday afternoon (at about 4.30pm) with my teenage daughter, we chatted about the squash ‘lesson’ she’d just had with me. That I wrote ‘lesson’ is to make absolutely clear that I am not really her coach, but am always happy to impart knowledge to her.

We approached the junction of Lady Musgrave Road and Hope Road, and saw that cars on Hope Road travelling west had entered the yellow box and blocked passage north from Lady Musgrave Road. Fittingly, I had been telling my daughter how to become excellent one must first develop consistent good skills; from that one can build superior ability. I pointed out to her that this was a lesson for many things in life, including what we were now experiencing: drivers have not honed the consistency of good behaviour on the roads.

No police officers were at the junction, where they had been positioned, with much fanfare several weeks ago. I knew that the day before, when most schools had reopened, police were out in force at many key points to ensure smooth transit for the heavier volumes of rush-hour traffic. I had seen them further north, by Barbican Square, as seen in this picture.

They were part of the new 700-member Public Safety and Traffic Enforcement Branch, formed from the merger of the police’s traffic and highway patrol and motorised patrol divisions, some of whom we’d seen on our homeward trip last week (seen on their new bikes in the next picture on Knutsford Boulevard). Whether on foot or on motorbikes, they were highly visible, even if they were not actually doing any active policing at the time.

The point I made to my daughter was that when the police were previously at the Hope Road/Lady Musgrave Road junction, driver behavior was almost exemplary. However, such admirable conduct was in response to the raised probability of being sanctioned for misdeeds. The ‘experiment’ was too short to conclude that, in the absence of police at the junction, drivers would respect the need to not block the junction. So, I wondered why, with more traffic expected, the officers had been removed.

Interestingly, today’s Gleaner Editorial, Kudos To The Police, But … gave me much of the answer–we don’t have enough police officers: ‘While this formation will likely improve the police’s ability to maintain order in public spaces, General Anderson still has a sustainability issue. He just doesn’t have sufficient staff to efficiently do all the things required of the constabulary. Of an establishment of just over 14,000, the constabulary is short by more than 2,000 members.’

Whatever the show of apparent success in traffic management this week, we will struggle to see this maintained because the principal source of success–officers visibly patrolling roads–cannot be maintained. In other words, the JCF does not have the means to offer consistent service. This is not just a matter of controlling public spaces but must also affect its ability to maintain law and order, more broadly–aka ‘crime-fighting’. It’s the fundamental problem highlighted by the seeming success of the states of emergency in various parts of island: where police are heavily and disproportionately deployed, public behaviour is much improved. But, that has opened the floodgates for continued and rampant misbehaving elsewhere.

It’s an indictment of our governments and governance that we tolerate inconsistent service from any public agency.

Jamaican society has not yet reached a point where the wish of most citizens to conduct their daily lives in an atmosphere or order prevails over the desire of others to create mayhem. In that regard, we are immature–like little children who constantly have to be steered to do the right things.

That immaturity has cost us dearly over the decades and has little chance of changing while we don’t or wont put resources into changing behaviour for a long and sustained period.

Many see this as the fault of politicians, who tend to shun consistency in favour of ‘quick fixes’ that may have good PR buzz but, like most of our road repairs, dont stand up to the test of time or adverse conditions.

But, it’s not all about politics, but must be about whether we have really understood what can be described as ‘sticking to it’. That’s another way of looking at the consistency I was explaining to my daughter. We have been consistent…in our willingness to flout. As the Gleaner Editorial notes (though focusing on traffic issues), much of our lives is riddled by ‘untidy topsy-turvy…exaggerated by the seeming free-for-all…in open defiance of law enforcement’. That’s really a description of anarchy.

To my mind, the truth is that, by our individual and collective actions (and inactions), we constantly reinforce the notion that we embrace anarchy. Why else would people blithely accept a bus shelter being recently turned into a vending stand (at the junction of Barbican Road/Salisbury Avenue)? Whatever energy we expend complaining about how things won’t change for the better has to be set in the context of an unwillingness to consistently insist on orderliness. Whomever else we may wish to blame for that, we are all part of the problem.

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If a picture says a 1000 words, then ‘read’ about Jamaica

It’s impossible to capture the full texture of any place by writing about it; it has to be lived. But, short of living it, it can be witnessed. So, instead of always writing about things going on in Jamaica, I often try to capture the essence of the country through what my eyes see. I’ve a huge portfolio of random pictures that I have taken as I move around the island, many of which I have shared, but recently I have decided to group them into themes. A current theme, is #JamaicaNoRiskTooGreat.

I’ve long noticed that Jamaicans perceive the riskiness of their lives in ways that often defy a certain logic, but those perceptions often revolve around the notion that what the individual does bears little significant danger to him- or herself. For that reason, and others (including sheer expediency), Jamaicans will literally put their lives on the line and believe that nothing will go wrong. While, in many countries, many agents and agencies would be doing their utmost to stop many of these behaviours, in Jamaica, it’s just ‘normal’ life. Screen Shot 2018-08-24 at 10.53.09 AMIf you want to take a look at this and other themes, you can follow me on Instagram (@dennisgjones) to check my current theme(s). Enjoy!

Elephants in the room: the labour productivity-exchange rate connectcion

Once again, some (maybe, many) Jamaicans are expressing concern about nominal depreciations in the exchange rate, and (dare I say) once again eyes are looking in the wrong direction.

First, let’s dispense with knee-jerk calls for the government to ‘do something’ about the level of the exchange rate. Whatever the government (and central bank)–‘the authorities’–can do is unlikely to have any lasting effect if the rate is being determined in a market. Sorry, the authorities can spend a good amount of hard-earned foreign exchange reserves trying to defend a rate, but we know how that can go (ask the UK about the pound in 1967, for instance).

I’ve seen a clear story about the exchange rate and it’s the counterpart to the story I’ve tried to tell about labour productivity (see, for example, Productivity problems in Jamaica—Jamaica Observer article.) Available data show that the average Jamaican worker is producing or serving less than in the past, ie productivity is declining. I did not clap when data showed employment was rising and unemployment falling. (The most recent data showed the trends of a rapid decrease in unemployment, while GDP flounders under an annual rate of 2 percent.)

Why? Because growth (GDP) was hardly rising, and, arithmetically, output per worker must be falling.

In conventional economics, labour productivity movements are directly related to the movement of the ‘real’ exchange rate (ie. the nominal rate adjusted for inflation). (See IMF Working Paper, Does Productivity Growth Lead to Appreciation of the Real Exchange Rate?) So, as I noted a couple of years ago (see What’s the exchange rate telling Jamaica?) and repeated a few weeks ago, the exchange rate is telling a very clear–albeit, complicated) set of stories. Whatever else may be weighing down the exchange rate, it’s clear that Jamaica is not competitive enough to support the exchange rate, so it must depreciate. Jamaicans are busily looking at other people for undermining their currency’s purchasing power, without understanding what role they play.

Some independent thinking about the Jamaican dollar exchange rate

I really ought to be doing something else on the 56th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence, but having gone out just after dawn to play a little golf and now trying to wrestle with crime-solving puzzles while watching series related to Inspector Morse, I thought I’d share some thinking I did over the weekend. They’re contained in the Twitter threads below (click on the boxes and the full threads should appear), and I hope are totally clear. If not, sorry. It’s mainly arithmetic and a bit of logic at work. That said, an annoying unknown about prices like the exchange rate is that we have some good guides about what it should be, but there’s no guarantee that in a market that has relatively free movement of demand and supply we can understand why the price is where it is. At the end of the day, financial analysts will tell you that the rate is that which has cleared the market, and it tend to stay at a certain level while participants are happy with that. That said, politicians hate being associated with negative news so always start to freak out when the country’s exchange rate is going in ‘the wrong direction’. So, I am really interested in whether the current Finance Minister, Dr. Nigel Clarke can keep his somewhat cerebral posture about the exchange rate, notably that the exchange rate is a shock absorber that allows other real variables (like output and employment) to remain less affected.

If you understand none of this, be blessed, and carry on your life regardless, saving me a piece of cake to go with the lovely cup of tea that you continue to enjoy 🙂

Lost but found, again

A few days ago someone asked me if I had stopped blogging; I told them I hadn’t, but I just hadn’t written posts here for a while, though I had been offering pithy and more comments elsewhere. Then, it occurred to me that I had not seen blogs from several regular posters whom I know and had seen actively writing elsewhere. In one case, the writer did indicate that she hadn’t done certain posts in a while and promised and hoped to correct that. So, I tried to dig a little and quickly found that I couldn’t–I’d been locked out of my account. I was due to travel and planned to fix that en route, which I did after a few attempts to figure out why and how the lock had been put on. No joy, but access granted, again. But, the break from writing was not all bad.

I deliberately take such breaks, occasionally, just to let my ideas percolate without their being put out to the world; it’s another useful way to see if they have traction when they appear coming from other sources. Also, many ideas just never get old but don’t need restating–at least, not by me. I’ve been back in Jamaica long enough, now, to have a clearer sense of the cyclical nature of many of our issues, include their not being addressed–and it’s tiring. It’s one of our sad realities that many days are about pushing that boulder uphill, like Sisyphus, and seeing it roll back to the bottom so that we can try again. Many of our daily interactions can leave us wondering ‘how did we get here?’ Take an instance, last week.

I was doing some business in New Kingston and walking away from the Sagicor Building on Knutsford Boulevard. I headed towards the ramp for disabled access and just started down it, when a motorcycle bearer turned onto it and headed up. I stopped and looked at him, and asked “Really? This is not a vehicle access.” He looked at me with scorn and retorted “You could move over!” I walked on down past him and he proceeded up.

I’ve written many times about the perverse logic that many Jamaicans have that justifies what they knowingly do that is wrong. For the rider, I was at fault for not yielding to his improper use of the ramp; he say no need to apologize or better not use it.

What this signifies has sat in my head for a few days. It’s a long, hot, dry summer. I’ll keep thinking and sharing my thoughts, bit by bit.

Blessings.

No Written Rules Banning Sleeveless Dresses: An Access to Information Story

No Written Rules Banning Sleeveless Dresses: An Access to Information Story

https://rightstepsandpouitrees.wordpress.com/2018/07/14/no-written-rules-banning-sleeveless-dresses-an-access-to-information-story/
— Read on rightstepsandpouitrees.wordpress.com/2018/07/14/no-written-rules-banning-sleeveless-dresses-an-access-to-information-story/

Excellent post on the baseless bind that Jamaican public institutions have created for their clients. Sadly, these essentially as hoc practices pervade the region and need to be removed.

Jamaica’s urban plight

Many Jamaicans may find it extraordinary that their capital would feature in a list of 50 cities in the world, that were notable for how they would redefine the modern metropolis. But, in 2016, The Guardian began its ‘Story of cities’ and featured at #9 ‘Kingston, Jamaica – a city born of ‘wickedness’ and disaster‘. When one looks at the plan and layout of the intended new capital, that would replace Port Royal in that role after its devastating earthquake in 1693 and fire in 1703, one sees a new new order that was radically different from the place that had earned the title “the richest and wickedest city in the world”.

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Michael Hay’s map of Kingston from 1740. Illustration: Library of Congress

The grid pattern, akin to that becoming popular in the eastern seabord cities of the United States of America, was also a part of a scheme to reinforce the defensibility of the new location.

Fast forward to the 20th century.

Those of us who grew up in downtown Kingston may well recall the orderliness of the city space, well shown in the iconic picture of the streets leading down to the harbour in the 1950s.

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There is a striking balance of scale of buildings, mixture of built spaces in stone, concrete and plants, and in those days the city was not choked with vehicles and people were able to walk on well-designed sidewalks.

The capital city has much changed and expanded in all directions, with vehicles dominating and (it seems) people pushed to no better than second place in many of the considerations of the layout and use of land. But, that is a consequence, not a cause. Kingston and environs was never meant to be an area where well over 1 million people live and work, and that unintended outcome lies at the heart of what went wrong with the capital. As the adage goes, failure to plan is planning to fail. That has been the legacy of Kingston, but also that of all of Jamaica’s urban areas, where massive influxes of people, squatting, sprawl and random development have driven the shape and use of the island.

Jamaica isn’t alone in seeing that sort of situation arise, not least as economic pressures pull and push migration and capitals become a massive magnet. It takes more than good intentions to stop mass internal migration, but it only become worse when a blind eye is turned to how many poor people will solve their basic need for shelter and make ‘homes’ wherever and with whatever they can.

Economic and social forces drive much of what happens with any national landscape, but so too does politics–in the sense of how those in power choose to control access to land and reward or deny based on political allegiences. It’s hard to assess how that aspect has driven ‘development’ in Jamaica, but we know that the notion of political ‘garrisons’ is not just a metaphor for voting blocs but something that is, literally, concrete (or in the Jamaican context, zinc, breeze blocks and wood). That political manouevering has allowed our landscape to deteriorate into an ever-increasing set of ghettos is perhaps one of the most shameful legacies of our democratic processes.

Turning back the clock on such random developments is not easy. As with any task, the longer it takes to start to correct the process, the harder it becomes, as the things we dislike take deeper roots and inevitably set in train a new set of complex processes. The fact that people’s welfare is at the heart of what needs to be changed makes it more difficult because any negative consequence to any individual can be amplified as a slight against a group, or be made to appear like a vindictive action.

I’ve only seen a few signs that Jamaican politicians truly want to address these problems, and the poltiical capital involved makes it completely understandable why they would not want to go far down that road: they stand to lose much.

But, like many things about where Jamaica has reached, we stand at yet another crossroad. Fear drives a lot of critical decisions in Jamaica. F.D. Roosevelt’s first Inauguration remarks in 1933, just at The Great Depression was reaching its lowest point, are especially poignant and relevant for Jamaica (my stress): “…let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.” The first part of FDR’s remarks are well-known, and often cited, but it’s the second part (the solution) that is often most challenging for politicians, for whom frankness is often wanting.

So, on the matter of what to do about how this island looks and feels, which way will we turn?

I mused yesterday about some of the thing I think we need to grapple with:

Productivity problems in Jamaica—Jamaica Observer article

I did some more thinking about low productivity in Jamaica, which I think is one of our grave persistent socioeconomic problems. Others have been pondering this, recently, and I was spurred by two commentaries last week. On May 6, Delroy Warmington in a Gleaner article ‘Growth: No more excuses, Mr. Holness’ took the government to task for its failure to produce faster growth in Jamaica—it’s struggling to exceed 2 percent a year against a so-called ‘aspirational’ target of #5in4 (ie 5 percent a year within 4 years). One of his points was that ‘Productivity is the elixir for the economy. I couldn’t agree more. On the same day, Everton Pryce was also on the productivity trail in the Observer, ‘Productivity and the need for political action‘. Mr. Pryce noted that ‘Part of the problem, perhaps, is that there is no sure way to fix our sluggish productivity, hence it is not given the mega political and media attention it needs.’ 

What’s really of concern to me is that this problem has been evident and well-documented for most of the last half-century, yet its real costs haven’t been understood by the vast majority of the country, in part because wealth transfers from abroad (foreign loans and grants and remittances) have helped us not have to recognise how we’ve been impoverishing ourselves.

My thoughts led to a longish article, that was published today in the Observer, Productivity problems in Jamaica, which I reproduce below.

Productivity problems in Jamaica

BY DENNIS JONES

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Jamaican sugar cane workers in the field. 

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“Productivity is an economic measure of output per unit of input. Inputs include labour and capital, while output is typically measured in revenues and other gross domestic product (GDP) components such as business inventories.”

While we should be concerned about total productivity, we spend more time on trying to understand why the labour component performs how it does, because usually that is the part over which a government and individuals have greater control.

What two recent commentators have flagged is that without improving that, we are doomed to fail, and because governments have put raising productivity as a low concern, they have doomed Jamaica to decades of poverty or, being more generous, decades of being poorer than we should be. That can be seen more easily in a few statistics of trends over the past 40-50 years.

Jamaica Productivity Centre reported that since the early-1970s, Jamaican labour productivity has declined an average of nearly 1.5 per cent a year, meaning the average Jamaican worker has become progressively contributing less to national economic wealth over the past 40-plus years.

Unit labour cost grew by about 0.5 per cent a year over the period from the mid-1970s through the mid-2000s. This increase was, however, not caused by wage increases, since real wages declined on average by 1.25 per cent a year.

Still, the most damning statistic and, perhaps, one which sums up the whole issue of productivity in Jamaica is the one which shows that the combined productivity of Jamaica’s resources (that is labour, capital, energy and other inputs) declined by an average annual rate of 1.75 per cent over the same period.

These developments do not have one simple cause. One could argue, plausibly, that Jamaica has never recovered from the loss of higher-quality labour of working age as a result of mass emigration — mainly to the UK, USA and Canada — from the late-1940s through to the early-1970s.

 On top of that, it’s known that Jamaica struggles to retain its best-trained people after they graduate from tertiary studies. A study conducted by the World Bank found that roughly 85 per cent of its tertiary-level graduates migrate to countries such as the US, UK, Canada, and other developed countries.

Finally, the supply of educated people is relatively poor, and the Ministry of Education has acknowledged the dearth of ‘quality’ secondary school places available, both in terms of actual spaces as well as quality of teaching.

The Global Youth Development Index (YDI), an initiative of the Commonwealth Secretariat, ranks 183 countries according to the prospects of young people in employment, education, health, civic, and political spheres.

Looking at 18 indicators, including literacy and mental disorder rates, financial inclusion and voter engagement, the index both showcases the best-performing countries and serves as a warning light for low-scoring countries.

The top-performing Caribbean countries are Barbados (28), Jamaica (46), The Bahamas (67), Antigua and Barbuda (72), and Grenada (73).

For context, the top 10 countries, with the exception of Australia and Japan, are from Europe. The 10 lowest-ranked countries are all from sub-Saharan Africa: The top 10 are: Germany (1), Denmark (2), Australia (3), Switzerland (4), United Kingdom (5), Netherlands (6), Austria (7), Luxembourg (8), Portugal (9), Japan (10).

The top 10 Commonwealth member countries are: Australia (3), United Kingdom (4), New Zealand (11), Canada (14), Malta (20), Barbados (28), Brunei (31), Sri Lanka (31), Malaysia (34), and Cyprus (38).

So, on various measures, Jamaica is way down the pack in terms of preparing its young people to compete on the world educational stage.

What these have resulted in is the fact that real GDP per capita in the mid-1970s was greater than it was in the late-2000s. At the same time, Jamaican workers have become poorer in real terms. So, the notion that many often observe that our parents seemed to have managed better on relatively “less money” than we earned appears true.

A recent World Bank overview http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/jamaica/overview noted Jamaica is “one of the slowest growing developing countries in the world”.

Put together, those numbers mean that the average worker is producing less each year and costing more in real terms to do that, so the only way that the average Jamaican will be better off is through a massive redistribution of income. We are not doing much to make the country wealthier.

Of course, there is no quick fix for this. While many Jamaicans lament the country for having poor productivity, I’m not sure if people understand what is wrong with how our country works and how things can change to give us higher productivity and faster growth.

The broad solutions requires creating a much better national workforce than exists at the moment.

Simply put, we need to invest in people — as the IDB has pointed out. If we don’t do that, and we want to grow, then we must accept the need to import that better workforce. This is what many dynamic economies have had to do.

A better-educated workforce is part of a long-term solution. We don’t have enough people who are well-enough educated to more easily use the widening range of technology that can take any country higher up the growth ladder. Moreover, we have an economy with a poor mix of skills to give us faster growth.

Dennis Chung, then the CEO of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, noted in the December 2017 ‘Fixing Jamaica’s labour productivity problem’ the need to train more technical people.

But, in the short term, we need to make the current workforce do a much better set of jobs than they do now. What that means in many instances is that the interaction of workers and their production has to be much better — simply put, we need to get better performance from everybody every day.

For some, that could be as simple as understanding that time is money and eliminating all the time-wasting activities that go on daily.

The short-term fix also means employers and workers need to understand better how they can positively and negatively affect those who depend on their services. Let’s call this better customer service.

We don’t need to list all the complaints about poor customer service —they are legion and their recurrence tells us about poor management as well as about poor worker attitudes. If some of these attitudes are really about ‘job preservation’, they often turn out to be ‘job destroying’ tactics.

Poor customer service creates a drag on the performance of the enterprise directly and on the performance of the customer directly and indirectly. For instance, a customer spending time trying to resolve poor service is taken away from performing other tasks. As someone noted on Twitter this week, arguing with a rude Dominos pizza operative has many bad outcomes, not least a potential sale that was lost, but also a customer who may never return and discourage others from buying the product, affecting future revenue potential.

When we look at how poorly we ‘serve’, we should not let our eyes be shut to every aspect of that. I cite a current problem to highlight that point: the Jamaica Constabulary Force and their use of body cameras. This is what Commissioner Anderson said on the failure to use body cameras some two years after they were introduced:

“When you introduce new things and new capabilities, it’s a process. You don’t just buy something to stick them on. There’s a training component, there’s an equipment backup component, a logistics component, a command and control component to it. There’s a whole thing that you used to deliver capabilities, but we haven’t been that good at it.”

That sums up how in many areas we don’t plan, which is the same as planning to fail. We fail to see the importance of things being done with great urgency — which is not the same as speed, because it goes to the matter of purposeful action. Part of that reflects a poor understanding of the true costs of delays, and how one affects so many.

When National Works Agency fails to advise in a timely fashion of road closures or expected delays, a large swathe of the national workforce then has to absorb the delays caused by that lack of information, and the costs and lost output is forcibly shared by all.

When a business advertises its hours as 9:00 to 5:00, but no one is present before 9:30 and gone by 4:30 the costs to customers is clear both in terms of wasted time expecting to be served and time available to be served.

When partygoers see no problem in parking on the Palisadoes Road blocking the only road to the airport.

When staff see no problem doing personal affairs during work time.

Not having consistency in work practices, so service quality is a function of personal interaction, reflects both poor management and oversight as well as poor training. Even in our justice system, where the justice minister has to implore the sector to render swifter justice.

Low productivity is deeply engrained into Jamaican life, but it does not have to stay that way.

Dennis G Jones is an economist.

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Productivity in Jamaica–Sunday Observer column

I was suprised to see this additional column based on my submission to the Jamaica Observer, which ran in the Sunday ‘Agenda’ columns, with some other commentaries on productivity in Jamaica. It’s the fuller version of my original submission, which had been edited down for publication last Friday.

Productivity in Jamaica

Dennis Jones

Sunday, May 06, 2018

There are always questions of productivity in roadwork.

Henry J Lewis wrote an interesting piece, ‘Jamaica moves…slowly’, published in the Jamaica Observer on May 1 2018, on productivity in Jamaica. It set me thinking about his final lament — “Jamaica, let’s move ‘fasser’!”

We are often quick to argue that service and productivity are poor in Jamaica — and that may be so — but it’s possible that we are not really seeing things clearly. But if we are to use speed as our measure, surely we must first ask if that can be the criterion we use when we generally have little regard for timeliness. In the land of soon come, but never reach, what are we really seeking?

I’ll just highlight a couple of instances:

We see a group of workmen beside a roadwork site and one is active and others are not, and we assume they are idle. But we don’t know that each person has the same task and whether each is dependent on the others before they can perform. To set that context better, think of a football team. Just because the goalkeeper is doing nothing is no indication of how effectively the team is working. In fact, the goalie’s inactivity is perhaps a sign of how well the team is doing. He is insurance for when forwards and midfield cannot dominate the opposition. If he were to start running upfield to ‘help’ all could be lost. So, sometimes, all we see are people ‘staying on task’. That’s good, not bad.

We are in line at a bank and see four of 10 teller windows operating and assume the bank is being inefficient by not having more windows manned. But do we have any ideas what other functions are being performed, and/or the estimated costs and benefits of either reallocating current staff or employing more? Our focus is on how our personal needs are being met and our perception of what ‘work’ is. To meet our perceptions, though, how much more would we be happy for banks to charge to give us what we want?

I would be glad to argue that many things in Jamaica could be done differently, and more efficiently, but our anecdotes need much of nuance and understanding.

However, part of service quality and efficiency depends on customer willingness to act in certain ways and employees’ willingness and ability to work differently. The Registrar General’s Department (RGD) offers a time frame for certain basic services, say 10 working days, and for a higher-fee ‘expedited’ service in, say, five working days. Imagine if everyone opted for expedited service, would RGD be able to deliver and, if so, could we argue that five days should become the basic service? Before we can answer, we need to know what happens and does not happen to allow some processing times to be halved. Is the counterpart that some other processes are lengthened? If so, how significant are they?

When service speed is slow it may be despite the best efforts of the provider. The bank is again a good place to look. I rarely go into a bank, finding I can do almost all my business electronically. When I have visited banks I’m often amused to notice how many transactions are lengthened by activities not to do with core banking. Some of these activities are great from a social viewpoint, such as some extended small talk, but they cost time for other customers. Some reflect lack of understanding by customers and the need for them to reprocess their requests; for example, someone is depositing cheques that need countersigning, but that had not been done, and it would be better for the customer to move away and do that, but he/she insists on staying at the window. If the customer is the cause of slowness or inconvenience, how should we deal with that?

Banking again: I’ve often seen complaints about how long some people spend at an ABM, and disbelief that more than 2-3 minutes are needed. What would we prefer? That the machine sets off a siren or a shower of water if it senses a person’s presence beyond three minutes?

How are we to be convinced that service is better? Is it truly speed alone? Faster with a smile and a greeting? Is there a measure of quality or quantity that is more or less universal, or can be applied to a specific area of provision? Do we want doctors to be faster with their consultations? Taking care to do things right takes time and can save lives. We may also have to accept that not all have the same proficiency. If ability is the issue, what do organisations do if, despite excellent trainers, they cannot find good enough candidates? The best service may demand much more automation, but are we going to be happy with the implications for those who seek jobs but cannot outperform machines or technology?

I spent part of my weekend at a police lock-up and saw what is common practice for Jamaica Constabulary Force — everything was handwritten in log books. No backup, hard to cross-reference, etc. We can point to such practices as part of a general inefficiency in police operations, no doubt. But to whom can we turn to fix that? Is it the worker to blame, or the employer, in such simple situations? What would need to happen for that to change, not even to a Utopian state, but just better record-keeping? If we cannot answer that across a range of functions, that is really the problem.

Dennis G Jones is an economist. Send comments to the Observer or dennisgjones@gmail.com.