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.