Leadership lessons from Jamaica’s Implementation of a new Public Sector Compensation System

December 22, 2022

The Government of Jamaica commenced a public sector compensation review process in about 2019.  The new system was to be implemented in April 2021 but was pushed back due to the dislocations to government activity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.  The implementation was thus slated for April 2022.  That deadline was missed but the government in effecting implementation decided, post April 2022, that it would implement the new system in December 2022, retroactive to April 2022.

The policy measure was, admittedly, complex.  According to information posted on the project website of the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service, the initiative involved eliminating some 325 salary scales and over 185 allowances across dozens of public sector groups, into a simple and comprehensive scale of sixteen levels.  The purported objectives of the effort were, among other things, to:

  • Establish a guiding philosophy of compensation
  • Remove real and perceived inequities
  • Spur productivity
  • Make salary negotiations less cumbersome and tedious
  • Ensure transparency.

Lessons for all leaders

Given that the system is only being implemented (at the time of writing), it is impossible to evaluate its performance and efficacy.  But there are some important leadership lessons that have emerged from the implementation of this policy which deserve deep contemplation, not only from the Minister of Finance, under whose portfolio responsibilities the project exists, but by all leaders.

Naturally, some of the lessons are more urgently and immediately pertinent to the Minister of Finance, but their value extends beyond him.  There are two lessons, rooted in my philosophical understanding of leadership that I wish to highlight, plus four actions I am urging the Minister to take to address the fallout from what has been an untidy process of implementation.

Dr Nigel Clarke, Minister of Finance and the Public Service, Jamaica
  • Humility

The postulations of the government about the implementation of the system, in terms of its courage in attempting to reduce 325 scales into 16, and the efficiency with which it would do it, and its seeming impatience with those who urged caution and had questions, came across at times as though the Government, and the Minister of Finance more specifically, was overly confident in its competence and had all the ingredients to get the job done well.

With the untidy roll out of the system, the confidence and certitude with which the Minister spoke have not been supported.  Too many errors and uncertainty abound. Among the issues which have afflicted the roll out are:

  • Late payments which affected the entire public sector, with some payments being later than others
  • Errors in payments
  • Confusion about retroactive payments, especially whether allowances already paid with salaries that were received between April and November would be “clawed back”. The Minister of Finance is on record saying there would be no payback, but he has reportedly said that was not what he meant.  The confusion exists!
  • Uncertainty about which of the sixteen categories applies to some employees.

Being as apparently confident as the government was with these issues being unstable was an unwise posture to take.  A posture of humility would mean, in this situation, at least four things:

  • Being extra diligent about the viability of the December timeline
  • Building into the project plan and public expectation the possibility of deferring the date of implementation
  • Speaking, always, (not just at the last minute) in cautious terms, rather than in terms of cocksureness and certitude about the implementation
  • Using a collaborative approach consistently.

Humility in leadership is not the opposite of being proud of one’s achievements and capacities, rather it is the opposite of the mode of thinking which professes inherent completeness of self.

In relation to (d), I recall the Minister posting a picture of himself, alone in a large room, making the announcement about paternity leave being one of the benefits of the new compensation package. Ironically, the room had a large table and several chairs. A more apt photo would show the room full of the required collaborators and thus send the message that the effort was a shared one.

Humility is not, as is often believed, a sign of weakness, rather it is a sign of wisdom and strength.  Humility is, among other things, a state of mind which affirms the fallibility and finitude of one’s capacity, despite one’s giftedness, and places confidence in contribution of others to get things done.  Humility in leadership is not the opposite of being proud of one’s achievements and capacities, rather it is the opposite of the mode of thinking which professes inherent completeness of self.

  • Clarity

The demands or requests, as well as the directions and undertakings a leader gives must be clear. People look to leaders for guidance and often place their confidence in what leaders say. This is part of the reason for what is called confusion. 

It is apparent that a substantial sum of the project funding was spent on communication.  It is reasonable to wonder whether there was proper research and communication on the right things.

In simple terms, if a leader’s words are not believed, if later facts confirm that the words spoken were not true, the persons who did not believe are not confused, only those who placed value on those words.  It is, therefore, highly consequential that leaders always speak with clarity.  The Minister’s statement about how previously paid allowances would be treated appears clear. That it is now being suggested that what he said is not what he meant is a major concern.

The compensation review is being undertaken at a cost of billions of dollars.  It is deeply unfortunate and unacceptable that despite spending so much money, taxpayers, including public sector workers, should be subjected to the level of trauma related to the implementation.  It is apparent that a substantial sum of the project funding was spent on communication.  It is reasonable to wonder whether there was proper research and communication on the right things. One of the most fundamental questions for which clarity should be abundant, once the decision to implement retroactively was made, is in relation to previously paid allowances, given that allowances would be rolled into basic pay.  The existing confusion, and possible future contention that may arise from this issue, is a major casualty in this policy initiative.

It sometimes serves the ends of politics for communication to have double meaning or otherwise be unclear.  Double meaning in policymaking and implementation will undoubtedly result in disastrous outcomes.

Suggested immediate fixes

I suggest these four steps for the Minister of Finance to take in managing the remainder of the implementation process:

  • Taking, and asserting that he is fully responsible for what has occurred in the challenges and fallouts of the implementation process.  This taking of responsibility, in my view, includes repeatedly apologizing to the employees whose salaries were late or incorrect. In taking responsibility, publicly, the Minister should avoid even the appearance of blaming anyone or anything.
  • Taking all steps necessary to ensure that every public sector worker is paid.
  • Clearing up the confusion over retroactive payments and to the extent that his assurances in parliament about the pay back reasonably led to the conclusion that no pay back would take place, he needs to make a full statement apologizing for the confusion.
  • Committing to and ensuring that all late payments and inaccurate deductions are corrected by January 31, 2023 and that all the elements of the system are in place by stated and achievable by a later date. Making promises that he knows he cannot keep, or which he does not keep, is the prescription for deepening the trust deficit.

Professor Canute Thompson is Professor of Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership at the School of Education, The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, and Head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning. He is author of two award-winning books and articles, among his collection of eight books and over a dozen journal articles, and the operator of leadershipreimagination.com website.

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