Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Building on a good start

Three months after announcing the measure, the Government has kicked off its Aided Self-Help Housing Programme, drawing over 1,000 hopeful applicants for the first cycle of the initiative based on publicly provided residential lots at a subsidised rate.

By all accounts, this first encounter between the public and the Ministry of Housing went well. The ministry appeared to have given some thought and planning to the public engagement process. To facilitate applicants from different parts of the country, Couva was wisely chosen as a central point. Once inside the packed waiting rooms, applicants found none of the stereotypical public service surliness.

Staff were welcoming, helpful and diligent to the point of working up to as late as 10 p.m. So, kudos for the ministry for setting an enviable pace in customer service for other public servants to follow.

That being said, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. When the process gets to the evaluation of applications, the issue of transparency and accountability will become paramount. While the public servants’ helpful attitude would have been a welcome surprise for applicants, the real surprise would be if members of the public graduate from the process believing that they had been fairly dealt with in the approval or denial of their application.

The challenge for the ministry is not simply a matter of improved customer relations but of building trust and confidence in the citizenry, given the long history of corruption and partisan politics in the award of State housing.

In the event that applications are denied, members of the public must be helped to understand why they could not be approved. A flat, unexplained rejection would only open the floodgates of suspicion. At every level of this programme, therefore, transparency and accountability must be prioritised.

The success of the Aided Self-Help Housing Programme depends as much on the public as it does on the State. Given the country’s dire economic straits, this programme is essentially a partnership between both to meet the public’s urgent need for housing. All governments recognise housing as a political hot potato, which is why there has always been so much political influence in the process.

The fact of a depleted national treasury makes no difference to demand. Indeed, it merely serves to sharpen the competitiveness as people and politicians use all the leverage at their disposal to get what they want.

In the context of the Government’s straitened circumstances, the Aided Self-Help Housing Programme is a smart approach to expanding the housing stock to meet public demand without imposing a too-onerous burden on the Treasury.

The notion of this programme as a partnership of mutual advantage changes the power dynamic between people and government which probably explains the supportive tone of the recent launch.

It cannot be stressed too much how important it is to break the culture of corruption and political partisanship in State housing. If this programme succeeds in doing so, it would have started a revolution all on its own.