August 27, 2016

Performance-related pay

Dear Editor,
Implicit in the initial comments of President David Granger, when he received the Report of the CoI into the Public Service last Friday, was his apparently strong preference for performance-related pay as opposed to across-the-board increases. For example, in the Stabroek News article of Saturday, 14/05/16, the President is reported to have “expressed the hope that the COI Report will be a launch pad for differentiated emoluments for workers… where performance of individuals is related to promotion and pay… if they work hard they will be rewarded… if they want to be lazy, they will get a lazy person salary”.
On the assumption that these very strong comments had some genesis in the CoI report itself to which the President must have had ample access and furthermore, that they are probably portentous of the positions the government negotiators might take when they eventually engage the unions in their collective bargaining for Public Servant’s emoluments, etc, they should not be taken lightly. Furthermore, the remarks the President reportedly made also included a denouncement of “across-the-board” approach for uniform increases in pay and benefits.
These are indeed fundamental, crucial and far-reaching ideas and approaches which would require much goodwill, patience, openness and thinking outside the proverbial box, the likes of which have so far not been characteristic of negotiations in Guyana. Besides, the nature of the work typically performed by Public Servants do not easily facilitate measurement of output especially at the individual level.
In similar vein, the Guyana Times report on the same matter on the said date is headlined by an apparent quote from the President that “Lazy Public Servants to receive lazy persons salary”. Who (and how in the structure and super-structured maze of the Public Service) will decide who is lazy and how would the lazy public servant’s salary be determined? At first blush one cannot fault the ideas and approaches hinted at by the President; they do make sense especially having regard to the public’s negative impressions of the quantitative and qualitative outputs from the Public Service. But, they are akin to the concept and practice of paying “piece workers” for units of work done in the historical “time and motion” assessment of work which originated more than a century ago by the pioneers of “Scientific Management” such as Fredrich Taylor et al.
These were geared more to production environments rather than the Service and Public Sectors. And, even in the former, they were not as readily or easily applicable or welcomed as the traditional negotiations and fixing of wages and salary scales by way of negotiations for across-the-board increases. Guyana has been no different from the rest of the world although the sugar industry has always had a mixture of negotiated wage and salary scales for time workers plus piece-rated or job-rated pay for production workers like planters, weeders and harvesters.
It is not unreasonable to think that the contemplated change from ‘fixed’, across-the-board increases for the typical Public Servant will be a hard sell. That is not to say it cannot be done (as Director of Human Resources for DDL many years ago I was fortunate to be able to successfully negotiate the first multi-year, multi-union agreement for Performance Based increases for all employees of DDL which became a model for successive Agreements and, as far as I know, the practice is still in vogue!).
However, it must be noted that any Performance Based compensation system depends on a robust Performance Appraisal System which in turn depends on unquestionable objectivity and integrity of the supervisory and managerial staff who are responsible for implementation and ongoing monitoring to ensure that the system does not degenerate into automaticity and perfunctory implementation. Favoritism, bias and similar human frailties can ruin the most well-intentioned, best-crafted Performance Related Pay and Promotion System.
Another peculiar feature of the performance of the typical Public Servant is that it is more qualitative than quantitative; qualitative performance is more difficult to measure than quantitative especially if one believes, like Henry Ford, that “Quality means doing it right when no one is looking”. What proportions of our public servants will qualify for good, very good or excellent service without supervision? Unsupervised qualitative performance is also referred to as ‘discretionary effort’; a gain, how do we spot and capture such ‘discretionary efforts’?
Most achievements in the Public Service depend on ‘team work’; how do you identify the unproductive team members from those whose basic plus discretionary efforts are key contributors to the team effort? The referenced SN report of 14/05/16 is headlined “Public Service wage negotiations closer”, giving the impression that these negotiations will likely start very soon; having regard to the President’s far-reaching comments discussed above, one is tempted to ask the following questions: Are the supervisory and managerial staff in our Public Service ready for such challenges? Are the Performance Appraisal systems currently in place geared to accommodate a system of Performance Based Increases? If they are not, can they be made ready in time for the already overdue negotiations with thue Unions for current and near- term salary adjustments? In conclusion, I wish to emphasize that I am also a firm believer in and implementer of ‘performance related compensation systems’; my purpose in writing this letter is to forewarn about the need for much advance preparatory work to establish the necessary foundations, sub-systems, competencies and sensitisation, lest any new contemplated system result in a ‘still-birth’!

Yours,
Nowrang Persaud