High public service salaries Editorial
Stabroek News
April 6, 2004

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High salaries for public servants are in the news again. When in the late eighties then President Hoyte recruited a number of permanent secretaries for various ministries at salaries that were high by civil service standards there was some criticism. Our position was that there was a desperate need for competent persons in the higher echelons of the civil service and that if the persons had the skills and were suitable for the job in question the decision was understandable.

It is an old debate. One recalls a debate in England in the fifties when it was sought to employ a chief executive to run the nationalised railways at a salary some in the labour movement felt excessive. The convincing counter argument was that if the gentleman did his job efficiently the benefit to the economy in terms of trains running on time, people getting to work punctually and in a good mood, goods being transported at a reasonable cost and so on would have been incomparably greater than anything he was paid.

If twenty years ago when the electricity situation was nightmarish and people suffered from blackouts in their homes every night and businesses could not function properly it had been proposed to employ a chief executive at a salary of say

US$10,000 a month that would have made very good sense if that person had the requisite skills and experience as the overall benefit to the economy would have been a substantial multiple of that sum. In other words, there are situations in which high salaries are not only acceptable but make very good sense. The price paid by not employing competent people is much higher.

Salaries must therefore be viewed in context . If the permanent secretaries employed by Mr Hoyte were efficient and got the job done it was a good move. Similarly, if those now employed at special salaries are performing at a high level there may in principle be no problem with the level of the salary. So, depending on the context, a special salary is not in itself unacceptable, provided the performance of those involved is monitored and there is a mechanism for review in the event of a falling short, or the salary is in some way tied to performance criteria.

But there is a different type of problem. If a number of people within the civil service (the same considerations would not necessarily apply to those in the public service but not the civil service, for example those working in government agencies or semi-autonomous government organisations) are employed at special salaries not related to the normal civil service salary bands this can affect the structure of the service and demotivate traditional civil servants. The government has, of course, since the time of President Hoyte recognised the problem posed by the paucity of skilled and experienced human resources at all levels of the civil service and has sought to tackle this problem in various ways. Mr Hoyte's innovation, as noted above, was to recruit skilled persons as permanent secretaries at special salaries. This government has continued and extended that practice.

The ideal way to deal with the problem would be as part of a general restructuring of the civil service in partnership with the union. There is indeed such a programme, the public sector reform programme, but it has not made the kind of progress that is required, partly because of the less than cordial relationship between the government and the union but also perhaps because of the complex and difficult issues involved in modernising and reshaping the civil service. Hence, governments have adopted their own unilateral remedies.

Dialogue is not in fashion at the moment but couldn't Dr Nanda Gopaul, the Permanent Secretary of the Public Service Ministry and the head of the public service and Mr Patrick Yarde, the President of the Guyana Public Service Union, agree to meet and put civil service reform back on the top of their agenda?