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One aspect of life that has to change in Jamaica is the functioning of the public sector. My view may be idealized but I believe that until that change occurs, little will improve. If anything about Singapore makes sense for Jamaica it’s the approach to service. Now, I know the arguments about our confusion between service and servitude, that run from our slave and colonial past. If this is really an immovable obstacle to our progress, then stop reading.

The Jamaican public sector has to become a symbol of excellence. People need to be immensely proud to work for the government or public corporations. People need to come away from dealing with public agencies with a set of positive emotions, not distress, depression, annoyance and a range of other negative feelings. They also need to feel that results will,follow.

So many aspects of life in Jamaica is marked by the presence of public sector activity. When people interact with the public sector, they take away a clear impression of how the country really works. Too often, that experience is discouraging. Why can’t the public sector have a simple set of objectives that involve ensuring that every transaction should leave the customer satisfied? That does not mean resolving all issues on a first visit. But, it’s important for the public servants to ask each time “Have I addressed effectively, efficiently, and courteously the needs of this customer?”

It means taking seriously the questions and complaints of each inquirer. The interactions should not be a substitute battleground for personal displeasure. Many public servants may react by saying “Some of the people we deal with are disgusting!” They are absolutely right, but it’s not relevant. The job isn’t about dealing with nice people, but about dealing with people nicely.

Several ways exist to try to turn around the attitude and performance of public servants, and they are all about incentives. People usually do well when they feel good about what they do and if they hear from others that they are doing well. It’s good old back rubbing and ego stroking. Could public servants be encouraged to improve if they had to get high customer approval ratings? Someone suggested rewards for public servants, which were linked clearly to better service delivery–not numbers dealt with, but quality. The public needs to give its feedback and the positive results should et rewarded and negative assessments see the removal of staff. Like rotting fruit, the bad apple will spoil everything. We could devise different systems, but at its simplest it’s like when a restaurant worker asks for an endorsement after serving tables, and presents a little form stating something like “X showed me patience, courtesy and knowledge…” We know that these rating schemes can be rigged but they tend to shift the focus away from the worker to customer satisfaction.

Humans are flawed, so this simple desire that I have has to confront the many ways that people want to be confrontational, aggressive, assertive, rude, saboteurs, back stabbers, etc.

Many people know that fish rot from their heads. As a metaphor for doing things, we look to the leadership to set the right tone. By this measure, we would expect politicians to take the lead clearly in setting the right tone and attitude. Can political figures change to do this?

20130909-094940.jpgI’d like to think that the change needs to happen at many levels simultaneously. In schools. In hospitals. On the roads. On building sites. At the airport. In the police stations.

I know the lasting impressions we took away from simple exchanges at airport immigration in two different Caribbean countries. One was sour-faced, disengaged, and grumpy, another was pleasant and engaging. We know clearly which country we look forward to visiting again, whatever meets us outside the airport. Those experiences and the impressions they left have carried through for months.

I know that I’m asking a lot, but I refuse to accept that mediocrity and unpleasantness are the order of the day that most people want. A simple start would be a smile. Another easy thing would be to make eye contact. Enough of the gruffness and the puffiness.