THE PRICE TO PAY

There’s been a lot of public angst lately regarding the provision of public goods, such as good quality healthcare, often juxtaposed to perceptions (some grounded in reality) of public officials’ inordinate concern for their own personal welfare.
 
I must admit, as an overworked and poorly compensated public official that the accusations does get to me sometimes though I do not have the luxury of going against my own pompous advice that public officials not publicly vent their frustrations. One’s gotta swallow it ‘like a man’ you know 🙂
 
Anyways, back to the people who really matter, and whose sensibilities and hurt feelings override that of any public official: the citizens.
 
We must admit that over the years ‘politicians’ have generally not done right by ‘ordinary’ citizens. They’ve been profligate, insensitive, corrupt, selfish, and self-serving. Unsurprisingly, citizens have had it up to here and are raising their voices and fists, Ali Mazrui-style, in protest.
 
The results of the two surveys attached (with all its limitations) captures, in one sense, the angst, BUT also, the dilemma that any government, such as ours, face in changing the narrative and perception about public officials.
 
        
 
Clearly, some citizens feel that public officials, irrespective of what they bring to the table – in terms of experience, qualifications, and education – are overpaid fat cats feeding on the state treasury. Note, this is NOT about public officials being corrupt, no. Now it is matter of compensation: wages and related benefits. It is difficult subject to navigate, especially being also a public official, and (probably) seen in some quarters as an undeserving beneficiary of the perceived largesse. (See poll here: https://www.facebook.com/Evronhughes/posts/10156587281572806).
Sadly, loud protestations that this is not so, certainly under the current government will not suffice: it is a perception that can only be shed off over the long term. The best that one can do, in my opinion, is to work diligently, and conscientiously, in a way that when the chips are down, even if begrudgingly, there will be a citizen-public official détente that the payoffs for the former outweigh the downsides to the latter.
The other difficult subject is whether what citizens might be willing to ‘give up’ in exchange for improved public services. I have raised the issue of public revenues, and how we ought to think through the financing, especially of public infrastructure. Giving his keynote address at the 2018 Africa Sovereign Wealth Funds Summit,  His Excellency the Vice President, Dr. Mahamudu Bawumia said: “As a politician, I have a four year horizon to look at, for the individual out there who votes for the politician, they have a daily horizon to look at, and it is a day by day matter. Am I going to get food today or tomorrow? So when you, as a politician in charge of resources, have to decide whether to spend those resources in investing in one area or another that you may think is very good for the country down the road, the calculus on the other side would be that we want it now, we want the money to be spent on our needs today, and so you have to have a balance between those competing demands so that you can satisfy the needs today while providing for tomorrow.”

Fact is, it takes money to build, and run public infrastructure and to deliver other public services. Government generally will directly finance these – capital and operating expenses – first from taxes, non-tax revenues, and ‘donations.’ BUT, government, like individual households, almost never has enough from these sources to cover all its programmed expenses. The gap is what we will call a deficit. To plug this hole, Government usually will take loans i.e. borrow. (Ps: Government also generally borrows 1. To pre-finance its expenses while waiting for tax and other revenues to come in, and/or 2. To pay off maturing loans/obligations. Among other things). Of course, there’s a limit to how much government can borrow, and at what cost, before it becomes unsustainable. And, for infrastructure whose economics lend itself to monetisation/revenue flows that make commercial sense, government might choose PPP as a financing and delivery strategy.How a government prioritises its programmes (within the its policy-politics space i.e. political economy considerations), budgets for, and optimises the available funds for all the competing interests without sending the economy into a tailspin and subsequent downward spiral is always a balancing act. A balancing act mastered through competence which this government has amply demonstrated.

My position was, and still is, that given the reduction of corruption and waste to xy, ‘x’ being the lowest possible occurrence of corruption over time ‘y’, the degree to which the state can prioritise its programmes, budget for it, and optimise spend will be determined by its ‘stage’ of development, ‘D’ (Ps: I disagree with Rostow by the way), and therefore the quantum of resources it will need to finance infrastructure-for-growth ‘Dg’, while delivering basic infrastructure, ‘Db’, other public services, ‘Ds’, meeting ‘political-economy’ obligations, ‘Dp’, and therefore what level of fiscal deficit – Fd – it can run without sending the economy into a tailspin.

So, while it makes good optics and provides a feel-good high to run #OpenUGMCNow-Like campaigns, it’s also necessary to ask ourselves: why do you think the economy went into a tailspin and spiralled downwards between 2008 and 2016 (it led us into an IMF Bailout) and is this what we want? Again?

Government will always have finite resources, even including loans (loans, and its costs have constraints), and it is the reason why you need competent hands to run it, not the incompetence that leads a government to borrow to put up a hospital, or clinic, commission it when it is not yet completed, and make no provision for staffing and operational costs.

At some point, we’ll all have to accept that there is a stiff price to pay if we want everything now, and also, it requires of us to step up to the plate and meet our tax obligations/pay more IF we want the state to increasingly step up and provide the public goods we need.

Which brings me back to the responses to the survey question on cutting public sector pay to finance healthcare costs.

Most responses demure, and based on the comments under the poll (See poll and comments here: https://www.facebook.com/Evronhughes/posts/10156585244317806) suggests strongly that citizens’ perceptions of ‘fat cat politicians’ is not going away soon.

 

Denials will hardly work. But DELIVERY would. So, if ‘politicos’ want to achieve a détente with citizens, they’ll have to deliver tangible, quality services that compensates over and above the perception deficit.

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