I say repeatedly that many of Jamaica’s problems have been well diagnosed, yet we struggle to go to the next level and take on board the many excellent recommendations and suggestions that have been made. If Jamaica were a person, I think we would call it obstinate. One of the problems of getting things done in Jamaica–that not getting it done is at the root of why many problems go unaddressed–is that, because we are a small country, many who have power and influence love how that feels so much that positions are used as much for profiling and ‘keeping others in place’, than actual stewardship. Sadly, by forgetting the ‘why’ of positions, many are obsessed with the ‘what’ of them. To me, that’s evident in the stance often taken by public officials, especially, which is a mixture of pomposity and arrogance. If not actually said out loud, the attitude is very much in the ilk of ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ as if that knowledge gives a certain status that defies all questions. In reality, it’s often used to indeed exclude questioning. One sometimes has to wonder if those in public positions of power Jamaica think they are gods; many act as if they are.
How that translates is simple, and I cite a few examples with no ranking on the scale of pompous behaviour, but I think I have captured well the stance that all-too-common:
- The ordinary police officer, who demands respect, yet shows very little for the citizens he/she is there to serve and protect. (Please don’t react by saying the force has good people. That never can excuse the boorish behaviours that are all too common, and displayed to almost any and every citizen. I don’t know if politicians are exempt, but let that be a matter to be discovered.) So, the officer who threatens “Bway, mi should arrest you!” to a motorist after a routine traffic stop where the driver asks questions such as “Why did you stop me, officer?” is in that box.
- The public officials who seem (because it’s a conclusion from what they do, rather than a stated set of actions) more interested in demeaning and frustrating clients rather than ensuring that a good service is delivered are also in that box. When faced with questions about why things are being done as they are, they often revert to non-arguments based on ‘That’s how we do it’ or defensive postures that relate to their not being totally in control (‘You need to ask a supervisor/manager’).
- MPs, who rather than start the nation’s business of deliberating and creating legislation on time routinely start late, with nary an apology. Jamaicans and many Caribbean people make light of time-keeping, but I do not. My training tells me that time is money. In the fancy jargon of economics, time has an opportunity cost: it’s simply what could have been done with the time spent. As with all things in economics, we are talking about choice. What the MPs and their tardiness do not take into account are the many lost opportunities that must arise because they cannot do things without (inordinate) delay. Now, when I am my most irritated, I always point out to people who are late or cause me to be late what that would mean if I were to charge them for billable hours. When I told a LIME operative that my time was worth US$500 an hour and that I would bill the company at that rate till they fixed the problem with my phone line, it had the effect of getting a technician to my property within two hours rather than ‘in coming days’. When costs of time are not made explicit, people tend to waste it. In transport economics, the value of time is the opportunity cost of the time that a traveller spends on his/her journey. In essence, this makes it the amount that a traveller would be willing to pay in order to save time, or the amount they would accept as compensation for lost time. Now, if MPs were willing to compensate the electorate for lost time, we could at least accept that in lieu of actually being timely, and the mounting costs to them personally and the national budget would make interesting reading.
- Those charged to undertake public projects (and I wont deny that high in my mind are the many road ‘improvements’ currently being undertaken in densely populated and heavily trafficked parts of the corporate area, namely at Barbican and Constant Spring Road, but also the project to widen Mandela Highway) see little or no need to inform, advise, forewarn, apologize or a raft of other socially gracious actions that would make the public who will inevitably have to bear the consequences. At its worst, we will see the traditional silent (dumb) insolence: a silent act designed to frustrate a complainer, criticizer, superior etc perhaps involving a refusal to answer them, looking sideways or at other people as they chastise you or ignoring them by continuing what you are doing. (In reports of events that can be stated as ‘unavailable for comment’).
- Lying to save face, which is a set of actions that find favour with many in many positions. This can range from a downright untruth through repeated denials up until the moment of truth arrives. Simple examples in recent time (and they are shocking to me in the way they were glibly executed) are the way the pasts two Police Commissioners denied they were going to resign and then in a flash announced their resignation. Talk about betraying public trust! I have deduced that part of the educational process in Jamaica is to make it hard for people to accept failure for its positive virtues and also the fact that we have a strong ‘blame culture’, so avoiding (or seeming to avoid) blame carries a high premium.
Dealing with each and all of these situations imposes enormous financial, emotional, and physical strains on the average person. They also impose a huge social and economic cost that is hard to calculate, not least because part of the cost is in the form of investments that are not made because savvy money does not want to get messed around by such attitudes. Sadly, they form of a web of unresponsiveness that usually goes unaddressed. Or, people go for weak reactions that are far short of direct physical confrontation–the occasional burning of tyres or chopping down of trees to bar roads are often merely symbolic and easily addressed with a few temporary ‘sweeteners’ rather than anything permanent. I say sadly because I suspect the general attitude of Jamaicans, which is along the lines of grinning and bearing it leaves many in power with the impression that people don’t care or can be so easily manipulated.
But, I’ve also said that situations like this must have their tipping points. While I don’t favour direct attacks on people, I see the ground being prepared in such a way as to make some think that this may be the only alternative. Reasonable and tolerant behaviour that is repeatedly met by unreasonable behaviour usually ends up in a major conflict. In Jamaica, that would not be out of keeping with many of the fundamental views that people hold, including well-know aphorisms such as ‘If you can’t hear, you must fell’. We’ve seemed to stay away from that as a nation, much to the surprise of many, including me.
But, it doesn’t have to get to that.
It’s more than noteworthy that, in recent days, the Jamaica Constabulary Force has made a major PR meal of the fact that they are now doing in the corporate area what many feel they should have been doing all along. In the area of traffic management, they are publicizing the fact that their increased presence and visibility at points of major traffic problems seem to be bringing forth much better behaviour on the roads.
This comes in the face of mounting and harsh criticism of many aspects of the force’s policing activities. It’s seemingly proactive but is glaring because it points to previous passivity. But, let’s give credit to the JCF realizing that they had been falling down on their own stated objectives of: “We serve, we protect, we reassure with courtesy, integrity and proper respect for the rights of all”. Added to that is the launch of a campaign to ‘give up a criminal for Lent‘.
These are two recent attempts to engage positively a wide spectrum of citizens. Will they work for more than a few weeks? Let’s be optimistic.
More importantly, do they signal a sea change in attitudes to the public? That I cannot say, yet. It’s not something that I see currently spreading across the spectrum of public administration, so for me the jury is not even ready to start deliberation.