Creating a Culture for Success
The Urban Development Commission
Derek McDonald Alleyne has had a varied career stretching from working in the Public Service as a Labor Officer, Community Development Officer and now Director of the Urban Development Commission (UDC). Before joining the UDC in the year 2009, Derek was the Deputy General Secretary of the National Union of Public Workers. Mr. Alleyne currently teaches on a part-time basis at Barbados Institute of Management and Productivity (BIMAP) tutoring in the Principles of Industrial Relations and Administrative and Labor Law. A graduate of the Cave Hill Campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI), he completed his masters with Leicester University and is currently enrolled with Walden University in the United States pursuing a PhD Philosophy program. Derek Alleyne is an active politician having contested unsuccessfully in two elections and served the ruling party in the Senate from the year 2008-2009, and is also a member of the General Council of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP).
Increasingly since the 1970s, much debate has centred on reforming the public service in Barbados, with the wave reaching such a crescendo that a Public Service Unit was created in 1986 and a full ministry in 1987. Establishment of a Public Sector Reform Unit followed in 1997, which remains operational to this day. Much of the debate focused on delivery of general services, but also a fair share of attention was received regarding the role of the statutory board in the delivery of public services. This paper takes the public service to mean any entity that receives direct allocations from the treasury for its operations and/or takes its policy direction from a minister of the crown. The Grantley Adams International Airport INC is a public service company, and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and Urban Development Commission (UDC) are both statutory boards and, as such, public service institutions. This paper looks at the UDC and efforts to reform that entity at the end of the 1st decade of the 21st century.
A CASE STUDY
A case study is designed to place a particular phenomenon or subject within a context and reveal up front the specifics of the case. Yin (2012) explains that the research question is probably the most critical issue in determining the choice of case study to investigate a phenomenon. The author strengthens his argument with the position that a case study can explain what is happening or what has happened in a particular instance or case. Van Wynsberghe & Khan (2007) argue that there are about 25 definitions of case research and explain that a case study is an in-depth study of a problem within its context and can consist of one or more variables of some importance. A case study can entail an in-depth analysis of a unit utilizing a small sample and can focus on a specific time and place binding the relationships that emerge within the space and time.
The look at the Commission follows the application of case study as a trans-paradigmatic and interdisciplinary heuristic that is not only about the case revealing itself, but also about the unit of analysis revealing itself. This paper addresses what has happened at the UDC since 2008 to the extent that it has created a positive public image and reduced the negativity that surrounded its operations in 2003, when a call was made for the UDC to appear before the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament. This call was followed by more negative publicity when the institution was the subject of much public and political debate, as the Minister and Director engaged in what was called a “stand-off ”. Was a change of government the beginning of a process that, injected with positive administrative systems and initiatives, created an institution that can be held up as a good example of reform?
UDC ORIGINS AND CONTEXT
The UDC was given birth through the Urban Development Commission Act, 1997-10. The Act identifies as its purpose, the provision of assistance for persons living in depressed conditions and to make improvements to social amenities and other related matters in urban Barbados. Among its varied functions, including providing housing solutions, social amenities, recreational facilities and ancillary services, the Commission is also charged with promoting and encouraging economic activity.
From its inception the Commission was subjected to much public scrutiny and political debate as concern for its focus on poverty alleviation became a daily topic on the call-in programmes. Detractors argued that the Commission’s mandate went beyond the services and assistance it provided and was concerned more about who was getting what, and that the rationale for assistance itself went beyond socio-economic concerns. In short, it served a partisan political end.
TURMOIL AT UDC
Public attention to the Commission was heightened when, in 2002, the Director was summoned before the Public Accounts Committee to provide an explanation of its administrative policies. Even though procedural matters ended the investigation, there was still uneasiness about the operations. This concern was again fuelled by the attempt of the then Minister to terminate the appointment of the then Director. Intervention of the Prime Minister into the affair created, in the public domain, a feeling that the institution existed on unsettled ground. A special audit conducted by the Auditor General’s Office followed in 2005 that examined, among other matters, the procedures adopted in the delivery of the services of the Commission and a number of outstanding projects for which funds had been provided. The report highlighted some irregularities. The UDC responded to the queries made but, in the scheme of partisan political administration, nothing was done to correct the identified deficiencies. Even to this day some of the concerns remain unresolved (see UDC Response to Audit Office, 2005).
In the elections of 2003 and 2008, the then opposition Democratic Labor Party made much ado about the operations at the Commission and promised, if elected, to institute a major reform programme. Any “foul play” identified would lead to prosecution of the offending parties. As a consequence, with the change of government in 2008, the Commission became an immediate focus of the new administration, and within 30 days the Director and several of the top management had been terminated. Some of the terminations, and most importantly that of the Director, led to court determination. Also significant was a spate of industrial action led by the National Union of Public Workers that followed the changes.
FRAMEWORK FOR ANALYSIS
Examination into the public sector using models has not been a popular exercise in Barbados. This is not to suggest that the research barrel is totally empty. The Challenge magazine that emerged through a recent reform exercise has often focused on some aspect of state functioning. From performance appraisals to the structure and functions of specific entities, the magazine has provided regular information about developments and changes in the public service. What has been missing has been a regular research-driven focus on aspects of the service. As such, no framework that can claim specific strengths as a tool to examine the Barbados service has emerged. At the regional level there have been some attempts to engage theoretical tools but time does not allow a review of literature that can do justice to the subject. In the absence, of a regional or Barbados specific framework, a look at two tools, generally applied, is undertaken.
Since the 1970s, the Policy Coalition Network (PCN) has been adopted as a method of examining policy development in state organisations. Networks exist as media through which ideas, goods, information and power flow (Marques, 2012), and they provide structures through which relationships develop and are maintained. More importantly as this case assumes, relational settings are constantly changing and influence the access one has to resources of any kind. Marques (2012) remind us that policy network structures affect the power dynamics of the state and the institutions that make up the state. At the Commission, the relationship between the Board and the Minister provides one power base. This in turn is affected by the Minister’s relationship with the Prime Minister. Depending on whether or not the Prime Minister is Minister of Finance, the power relationship can have different significance to the functioning of the Commission.
Acting on the Commission is a coalition of public servants representing the public administrative systems that boards were created to avoid. At the same time a network of directors and chief executives of statutory boards and parastate organisations have been networking to ensure that policy direction and development move away from the general service.
On top of these “local” networks is a coalition of the Trade Unions and Staff Associations of Barbados and the Social Partnership, where policy issues are generated and/or affected that have impacts on public sector administration. Finally there are coalition networks of political actors, some elected and others with specific yet common purposes of joining forces. Have these coalition networks influenced the changes at UDC, and is the coalition network framework a useful model to examine the changes at UDC?
The importance of network structure to this exercise rests in the stability it can bring to a system while allowing for development of the institution by widening the network of policy influences. At the Commission, the strong ties that had been developed over the years could be seen as being under threat from the new policy influences that a change of government brought, or it could be seen as an opportunity to strengthen the structure and policy options. The change of political regime was undertaken within a wider public sector reform exercise being undertaken since the 1990s. How did the new policy influences impact the existing policy networks and how has the Commission been able to move forward?
PUBLIC SECTOR REFORM
Another framework that can guide the experience at the UDC is public sector reform. Public sector reform has often focused on the capacity of the state at the general level or at the individual institutional level. In these analyses emphasis has been placed on the level of expertise and professionalism, the governance of accountability, the effective design of organisational systems and processes, and the level of skills and the quality of leadership (Muthien, 2014). In an examination of the change process, Blackburn (2014) found some elements emerging as critical to the process. The author found that change agents need to impress a sense of urgency among all those involved. This builds a climate of importance. Secondly, one must expect resistance to change and plan to respond to any negatives. Quickly building sound communication channels, developing ownership of the process and designing organizational goals through a process of inclusiveness, can control this. Critical ingredients in the change process include training, but with an emphasis on education and personal development. Most of all, strong leadership must be generated that allows for participation and dialogue. This can lead to a relationship of trust at all levels.
Change processes often involve alignment of people and organisational goals as key to the sustainability of the changes. The argument is often advanced that once an understanding of an organisation’s vision and goals has been achieved, and staff roles are aligned to them, the staff will recognise its importance to the organization and positively contribute to achieving the organisation’s goals (Blackburn, 2014).
The new Board of the Commission invited three different agents to engage the staff and management of the Commission in reform exercises. The first effort, utilizing two staff retreats and interviews, looked at the vision and mission statements and the structure of the Commission. The Ellis report in 2008 found that the structure of the Commission on paper appeared sound but from reports, gleaned from staff interviews, decision making was top-down and did not allow for discussion. In addition, duties, roles and responsibilities were not clearly identified and all activities appeared to be driven by the directorship of the Commission.
The second reform exercise conducted by Systems Consulting, included a document search, interviews, and brain storming sessions across departments. It also included a session with the Board of Management to get a grasp of the policy direction and the priority areas for the short-term. The report revealed that staff changes were necessary and that qualified personnel were an immediate concern. It further stated that the directorship required leadership with wide skills covering political, social, administrative and labour dimensions, with the strength to make decisions in the interests of all its stakeholders.
The third exercise was the restructuring exercise where posts were aligned to functions and a new structure that related to the operations was developed in conjunction with the staff. The old posts were abandoned and new ones created. Seven employees were severed and this led to some disruption as the union intervened.
THE NEW REGIME
The change of government brought with it some early challenges as the new Board found the systems inadequate. Coupled with an unwilling or inefficient staff, major changes were required if the Board was to meet its mandate of reforming the Commission (Allsopp, 2008). By 2009, a new
Director and a new Board had been installed and the aforementioned reform exercises completed. The structure of the Commission was completely revamped and a new one was designed to ensure that operational activities were matched with skilled personnel. For example, the roads, housing and tenantries programmes were staffed by units of qualified personnel in keeping with the demands of the operations of that unit. All appointees were adequately certified and most with excellent service records.
Another important departure from the past was the installation of an administration and human resource department with a clear mandate to place staff relations and administrative procedures at the top of the Commission’s agenda. In addition, subcommittees of the Board included representatives from the staff directly responsible for carrying out the programmes and activities determined by the Board through collaboration at the committee meetings. Finally reports of meetings, at all levels, became mandatory and standards and systems of measures utilizing technology became the norm. Employees and their supervisors became responsible for departmental activities and feedback meetings were scheduled to reflect and coincide with the planning and implementations phases that drove the operations of the sub-committees.
In 2009, personnel were trimmed from 70 to 55 permanent employees with two officers retained on fixed-term contracts. While the new structure allowed employees to clearly identify their supervisor and the duties and responsibilities, it provided the impetus for the development of an appraisal (AP) system. That process included extensive training with the National Productivity Council, negotiations with the National Union of Public Workers and the setting up of staff committees. The AP system has had its challenges and remains a work in progress.
Critical to the change of operations and public image has been the improvement in staff morale and relations with the public. Internal changes have included monthly meetings of staff, monthly meetings of the Board, and monthly meetings of management. In addition, there has been the establishment of health & safety, union, activities, and health and wellness committees that meet monthly. Birthdays are acknowledged, and there is an annual week of activities and a Christmas staff party. To supplement the focus on staff relations, working conditions have been significantly improved to the extent that the office accommodation has become the envy of most public sector officers.
Communications within and outside the organization can make or break a reform effort. The website of the Commission was transformed to meet the new thrust and vision, and propaganda was replaced with solid information. Many of the clients of the Commission have no access to computers, and as such relations with the public have also been tackled through various media including: engagement of applicants through constant dialogue via the telephone on the status of applications; engagement of homes for the elderly with outreach activities; painting of schools; developing flower gardens and sponsoring a garden beautification competition; reading to school children; sponsoring school outings; and participation in national events like HIV awareness, the National Food Bank, fun walks, anti-gun campaigns, environmental awareness activities. Finally the Commission has branded its vehicles and has made available tee and polo shirts for all staff. The technology has been greatly improved and most of the records of the Commission have now been digitized providing immediate and accurate data on demand.
Most of all, the Commission tackled the provision of its housing services by reducing the size of the contractor list (from 200+ to 35); developing operational standards and specifications; providing training for contractors and improving the quality of the staff. These changes have led to a reduction of waste, reduced conflict between staff, contractors and clients, and allowed the budget of the Commission to address a greater number of applications. As housing was perceived as the Commission’s flagship, it was determined that building relations across stakeholders involved in this provision could lead to a turnaround in other services and allow for the development of new services.
Efforts to make changes in organisations with a strong culture have often been confronted by the danger of the old cultures re- emerging, and employees slipping back into old habits, norms and values (Swedlow, 2013 & Vis & Kersbergen, 2012). This appeared to be the case at the Commission and an ongoing staff development process was adopted. To that end, educational programmes have been an ongoing activity with all staff members attending sessions relating not only to the Commission’s work, but also to their personal development. The result has been a high level of staff morale, a strong staff relations atmosphere, and an educated and motivated staff that finds coming to work a welcomed activity. There are draughts, dominoes, table tennis and fitness competitions, and every special holiday is an occasion for either the men or the women to treat the other group.
The efforts at reform took place within an environment of an annually decreasing budget allocation ($26 million in 2007 to $11 million in 2014), and in a public sector where layoffs and terminations became the norm. Over the last five years six employees have left the Commission. Of these, two were terminated, three retired or resigned and the other passed away. Over the same period, six new employees have joined the Commission all bringing specific skills and knowledge to the operations of the Commission. A key factor in the turnaround of the public image of the Commission has been the non-interference of the operations at the Commission by the Board and the political directorate. The Board and the political directorate continue to set the policy options while subcommittees of the Board and Commission staff manage the day-to-day operations.
FURTHER REFORM ANTICIPATED
At present, the Commission has been engaged in discussions with the Ministry of the Civil Service, the Rural Development Commission and the National Housing Corporation about its future. There is a position being advanced that there is too much duplication of functions across the public service and, more importantly, some units are under performing. The options that have been placed on the table include:
- An amalgamation of the three entities (NHC, UDC and RDC)
- A union of RDC and UDC
- The entities stay as they are
Clearly my preference is for the third option, not because of the fact that the Commission has transformed itself into a progressive and productive public institution, but because an institution that looks after the interests of urban dwellers is needed now more than ever and a reinforced UDC can provide that specific need.
Across the public services of the Caribbean there is a deafening call for reform initiatives as financial resources become scarce, and a word on public sector reform is timely. The process of public sector reform often is saddled by the reality that the reformers know not what they seek to reform. Similarly, managerial reform is all too often a secondary concern for ministers and their public servants (Rhodes, 2013). Determining the performance of individuals and departments creates their own challenges and often requires a dedicated unit to make the process worthwhile and sustained. Rhodes (2013) explains that effective performance measurement needs more clarity for often it is useful but not where the real action is. He noted that Ministers are not managers and it is not why they went into politics. Neither are public officers, even those that take an interest in the performance of their ministries. We ignore this reality to our peril as Rhodes (2013) explains, these brute facts undermine reform. The civil service exists to give ministers what they want and most do not want anything to do with management reform. For many public servants, reform is not a priority and often it is not even a consideration.
In many instances reform takes its focus from top civil servants, but politics and policies do not arise exclusively from the strategies and interactions of elites. They can flow from the many sources that impact the service in particular and the industrial relations climate in general. Rhodes (2013) makes the claim that resistance and transformation can come from other forces, often thwarting the agendas of elites. He concludes that an anthropological approach draws attention to the diverse traditions and narratives that inform actions at lower levels of the hierarchy, and the actions of citizens. Borrowing from early reform exercises can reduce the tensions that change can create, particularly if the old coalition is invited to participate.
The changes at the UDC took, as a point of departure, the role of those that were present both at the institution and outside. If I may or daresay, it has reaped the rewards of an engaging process that took information from all staff and most of all the principal stakeholders, the public. What is required is a deliberate effort to ensure that the environment at the Commission remains alert to the changes that impact its operations and move expeditiously to adapt its systems to meet anticipated changes.
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