Joined-up government. Merely an easy soundbite?

Politicians say many things, not all of which are to believed, but many of which reflect things that they believe. The current administration in Jamaica has been described by its prime minister as being a ‘joined-up government’. I have to say that every time I hear this description I search for evidence that it’s true. I struggle to find it.

How well-connected are the government's parts?
How well-connected are the government’s parts?

The term can be taken to mean ‘a policy to make different departments in the same government work together‘. It’s a phrase that was much-loved by the UK administrations headed by Tony Blair. The need for good interdepartmental working in government has become apparent in many countries, as the world and national problems increased in complexity. The basic notion rests on the idea that things are done in a fragmented way and that has led to an inability to function well.

However, as a minimum, if there is to be a bringing together of the parts that make up government, one would expect also that each of these parts would show that they function reasonably well. Honestly, that seems to be a tall order for the current administration.

The PM has used the term ‘joined-up government’ in many speeches. For example, during  her 2013-14 budget presentation:

“Our approach to development is evidence-based and data-driven in order to:

  • Enhance work force training to facilitate job creation;
  • Address our current  ‘mismatch’  between training and employment
  • Determine the level of female involvement in the labour market
  • Re-train the unemployed in new skills
  • Diversify programme offerings in tertiary and training institutions toward high demand areas
  • Enhance our dispute prevention and settlement mechanisms; and
  • Align labour market activities across the key Ministries of Labour, Education and Industry. 

This is joined up government and planned development at work.”  

Prior to that, in a Statement by PM Simpson Miller Following the Cabinet Retreat in late 2012:

“The value of operating a joined-up Government was also identified as an aid to efficiency, exemplified in major projects such as the Logistics Hub and the Port Expansion as well as the social issues affecting children and women.”

Prior to that, in a 2011 interview with Global, where she talked about the importance of social inclusion:

People value a record of performance, but they are also excited by change. My year and a half as Prime Minister was not long enough to accomplish what was necessary in 2006-07. My administration received a mandate in 2011 for a more united, disciplined and ‘joined-up’ approach to governance, involving more communication with the people – and we have been adopting that approach during the last year and a half.”

Those quotations mention efficiency, performance, more communication, evidence based, data driven, and planned development. I don’t think it would be unfair to say that many of those seemingly important things have been hard to identify in what government has been seen to do.

On many occasions, recently, when the phrase ‘joined-up government’ has been used by the PM, it has been in the wake of clear indications that the government is rather disjointed. It’s almost as if repetition will make it true. It’s often remarked when clear signs exist that the government has not been efficient, or communicated poorly, not planned, or not done much to get and use evidence or data.

One such instance was in the midst of the recent NHT/Outameni controversy. What that showed was that the minister in charge of the housing portfolio, who happens to be the prime minister, was not well-informed about important activities within the realm of the main housing agency, the National Housing Trust. This became apparent when news of the NHT’s purchase of Outameni assets was made public in the media. The PM stated that she was not aware of the purchase until learning of it through the media. At the time, the press reported that Permanent Secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), Onika Miller, says that she was not aware of the Outameni/Orange Grove property transactions until she read it in the press last month. She added, further that she was not informed either by the board of the National Housing Trust (NHT), or the Director of Planning and Development in the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), Sonia Hyman, who sits on the board. The chairman of NHT also reinforced the idea of little or no sharing of information with his presiding minister by stating that this had not been the practice of the agency for years. Little wonder that the head of the Private Sector Organization of Jamaica called for the chairman’s resignation, and the obvious need to ‘strengthen the reporting and oversight relationships between the agency and its portfolio minister’.

At the very least, that situation describes the absence of important information-sharing that should be the basis of any coordinated government decision-making. In other words, an clear absence of ‘joined-up government. Frankly, it shows a high level of internal dysfunction. No one who should have know what the agency was doing seemed to know, and was not being informed properly. The chain had no links or they were broken.

If one looks at the ongoing saga of the recent Riverton Dump fire, we also see signs of the same internal dysfunction. On more than one occasion, the PM and the responsible minister (of local government) have admitted to being unaware of important aspects of the administration of the dump, as undertaken by its Board and Executive Director. The PM can be excused to some degree of not being well-informed. But, it seems astonishing that the minister could have been unaware of matters like a damning 2014 internal audit. Some of that astonishment comes from hearing the minister say that part of the reason for his apparent lack of information was his absence on official business–he was away in Japan. We do not live in the age when international communication either does not exist, or is in the form of slow communication like telegrams or written notes or letters. We have near instant communication either by telephone, or the Internet. For the minister to use his absence as justification begs questions about what he demands as essential information from his junior ministers and his cadre of civil servants. Does he really travel and get no briefings or updates? 

Within this Riverton saga, we also saw clearly disagreement and dissent and dysfunction between the heads of the Board and its Executive Director, to the extent that the chairman dismissed the ED and made clear that he saw her as unfit to manage, having had  her in post for nearly two years. We heard how the NSWMA had misused or not accounted well for billions of dollars, and how it constantly cannot perform its tasks. That’s chaosin a word. Nothing joined-up in any of that.

Another recent instance of internal governmeltal discord was the ministry of health taking the ministry of local government to court, under the Public Health Act, for failing in its duties to manage the Riverton dump. Although the courts threw out the case, this sense of disjointed government, and dysfunction grows larger, because it suggests that means do not exist for ministries to resolve issues short of suing each other. To the extent that this may reflect personal differences between ministers is unknown, but that would add another layer to an already shredded landscape.

We get wind of many other instances that things do not work well within the administration with things like the multimillion ministerial phone bills and clear evidence that few, if any, systems of control and good governance exist.

What we also see in these instances is the struggle to communicate within organisations, between organisations, and between organisations and the general public. Look again at what the PM told us to expect. One wonders at the feedback that is happening to correct what appears to be problems in doing what should be done.

Does this government solve problems effectively and efficiently? I see little evidence of that.

Is it a government that seems to respond mainly to crises and are those responses short-term palliatives or lasting solutions? I see plenty of evidence of crisis-driven reactions, followed by statements that are then followed by little action to make the statements reality.

That shouldn’t be what joined-up government gives us.

If the joining up is taking place, then evidence of it had better start coming into view.