Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth

Urban Crossroads #123

This article is also available in Arabic
يمكن قراءة هذا المقال أيضاً باللغة العربية


A joke I used to hear about a big international corporation asks how many of its employees are needed to change a light bulb. The answer is five: One to hold the bulb and four to rotate him! When five people do the job of one, the results border on the absurd; too many cooks spoil the broth. This joke unfortunately is very true of many large organizations, particularly public sector ones. In this, Jordan is no exception. Any of us who ended up having to roam the corridors of a governmental department following up on some official document will have come across scores of employees sitting at their desks with apparently nothing to do.

When an organization hires only the needed number of staff members, selects them carefully, and pays them and treats them fairly, that organization functions well. In contrast, when an oversupply of employees is hired, and when they are selected through favoritism (i.e. wasta) and are paid poorly, the results are disastrous. The performance of these underpaid and demoralized employees will be poor.

Such comments of course apply to urban management organizations. Take the case of the Greater Amman Municipality (GAM) as an example. It has about 22,000 employees serving a population of about three million inhabitants. In other words, there is approximately one municipal staff member for every 135 residents. GAM has a significant number of highly experienced and competent employees. However, judging from the quality of services that the residents of Amman receive, whether relating to solid waste, traffic, public transportation, issuing permits, as well as planning and zoning, it is safe to state that they have the right to expect more from such a large number of employees and a high employee-to-resident ratio.

There is no single optimal employee-to-resident ratio for cities. Different municipalities carry out different tasks. They generally are expected to carry out responsibilities relating to planning, zoning, and issuing permits, but their responsibilities very often also include managing solid waste collection as well as traffic and transportation. In a number of cases, they also provide educational, health, and cultural services. The more services a municipal authority offers to a given population, the more staff it needs.

GAM is engaged in all of the above, except for health and education services, which in Jordan are the responsibility of the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education respectively. Very convincing arguments have been made in different countries that municipal institutions should also play a major role in providing health and education services. Since they are a form of local government, municipalities have a more detailed and nuanced understanding of local needs in comparison to national institutions, and therefore are able to more effectively provide such services.

Various public sector agencies clearly should be involved in providing many of the services we need, including those relating to education and health. In doing so, I would argue that at this time, the public sector in Jordan should generally concentrate on the role of regulator and only assume the role of service provider in very limited and carefully considered circumstances. I am aware that many today are promoting an opposing position. However, I urge them to consider – as one example – the tremendous agony people had to go through when telephone service in Jordan was controlled by a government agency. One had to wait years and use whatever wasta one had to get a telephone line. However, once the private sector started providing telecommunication services about a decade ago, their quality improved drastically. In fact, the quality of such services in Jordan today is internationally competitive, and judging from personal experience, often supersedes what is available in countries with wealthier and more advanced economies.

Based on this, how may the quality of services that GAM provides to the residents of Amman be upgraded? To begin with, an assessment of the tasks that GAM executes should be carried out. A decision then needs be made as to which of these tasks it should continue to carry out and which it should outsource. This should be accompanied by an assessment of the number of staff members that should be engaged, as well as their qualifications and compensation. It is almost certain that GAM currently employs far more staff than is necessary. If GAM would employ fewer people, employ the best it can identify, continuously develop their competencies, and pay them market rate salaries, the institution’s performance will reach impressive levels.

We know that terminating employment in the public sector in Jordan simply is not an acceptable course of action. Ideally, employment security for public sector employees should not be guaranteed, but it will be some time before such a concept ever achieves a wide level of acceptance. In the meantime, there are a few approaches that may be adopted to help create a more efficient public sector within existing restrictions. These include capacity building activities that concentrate on training and mentoring, promoting early retirement, and outsourcing.

Outsourcing can be a very effective approach for bringing down the size of government institutions, upgrading their performance, while preserving employment for those whose services are being outsourced. One example where outsourcing should be carried out in Amman relates to solid waste management. GAM employs about 6,000 people who are devoted to this task. Still, the quality of cleanliness in Amman’s streets is far from adequate. Moreover, recycling has yet to be carried out in the city in any systematic manner. Outsourcing solid waste collection in Amman through a transparent and carefully planned bidding process will provide a win-win situation for all concerned. Judging from past experiences, the private sector will be able to carry out the process in a far more efficient manner than the public sector. Moreover, since it is motivated by profit, the private sector will make sure to fully sort and sell all recyclable waste. Waste after all is a resource, not a liability. Plastic, paper, glass, and metal waste all can be sold for cash and are traded internationally. Garden waste and organic waste may be treated and reused as ground cover for landscaped areas, or as compost or fertilizer.

Through outsourcing solid waste management, GAM will be able to reduce its workforce by 6,000 people, whose employment will not be terminated, but transferred to the private sector. In fact, if the public sector empowers the private sector to take a more active role in solid waste management, that field will grow, new employment opportunities will arise in it, and the increased activity will result in higher tax revenues for the government. In the meantime, GAM will be able to more effectively concentrate its efforts on issues such as planning, zoning, and the issuing of permits.

The role of the public sectors should never be that of an employment agency. The public sector instead should develop the necessary circumstances that allow the private sector to create new jobs, and it also should regulate and monitor the private sector. However, if the public sector continues to be viewed as a place of employment, the result will only be increasingly inefficient service provided by underpaid and demoralized public servants. In the communist countries of Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall, where almost all employment was limited to the public sector, a common saying among employees was: “we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” In a number of cases, this already applies to the public sector in Jordan. It still is not too late to reverse this condition. Time, however, is running out.


Mohammad al-Asad 

January 24, 2012


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