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Charlotte Amalie
Friday, February 23, 2024
HomeCommentaryOp-edThe Crisis: First Make Sure You're Solving the Right Problem

The Crisis: First Make Sure You’re Solving the Right Problem

Frank Schneiger
Frank Schneiger

As the territory’s crisis deepens, here is a thought and a question. First, the thought, actually a basic principle. It is, always be sure that you are solving the right problems. And then the question: are there problems that are insoluble?

The starting point is to define the problem to be resolved in clear and concrete terms. Mis-defining problems is a frequent occurrence and inevitably leads to wrong solutions, wasted resources. and, most important, a failure to even address the real problem.

Here is an example. The fundamental problems facing the Virgin Islands do not include the structure of its government and its operating agencies. The idea of a group of small communities with a population of under 100,000 people having a governor and senators, all with the trappings that go with being big shots, is a part of the problem that has helped produce the crisis. But it is not the core governance problem.

More important, neither is the structure of the territory’s government. Moving boxes around on an organization chart, as is being proposed, is a standard early stage reaction to solving fiscal crises. It never works. It is an evasion.

The core problem of government in the Virgin Islands is not the configuration of the executive departments. It is that these departments are poorly managed, have low standards, and are staffed by people do not work hard – or effectively – enough. There is little accountability, a lack of transparency and toxic levels of ambiguity. And the concept of “customer service” doesn’t much exist. Consequently the quality of virtually every public service is far below what the citizens of the territory deserve.

On the legislative side, what should be a small part-time municipal council with limited staff is an institution. It is an institution that, with the resources that it has, repeatedly demonstrates extraordinary levels of irresponsibility. That irresponsibility grows out of an inability to ever see the long-term common good, as opposed to some narrow or short-term interest.

These are “front-end” problems that need to be addressed if there is to be a path out of an increasingly dire situation. Experience tells us that not addressing these core issues is the recipe for a downward spiral. And, parenthetically, it is a recipe for giving those who will want to stick it to the territory, and, in the process, make a fast buck, a lot of ammunition.

Which brings us to the two basic questions: Are there insoluble problems? And is this one of them? The answers: maybe and maybe.

To address and resolve these issues, the first step is for the territory’s leaders to accept some version of the above diagnosis. That seems like a long shot. But let’s assume that it happens.

The next step is to make some painful changes, like demanding performance from managers and being able to fire people who don’t achieve reasonable results. In this regard, Virgin Islanders are very French. That is, they want revolutionary changes and improvements, but only on the condition that everything remains the same for me. As the French have discovered, that formula doesn’t work out so well.

A basic truth: the Virgin Islands desperately needs good government. That is, it needs a government that keeps people safe, teaches young Virgin Islanders, keeps the lights on, picks up the garbage, protects the environment, and keeps people healthy. Doing all of those things is about to get harder.

When the grim reaper shows up, as he has in Puerto Rico, he will not be interested in any of those services. He will want to collect his money, and, if someone says, what about our children, the sick people, poor people, the environment? He will be able to mask his indifference by asking, “What exactly did you do for them?”

Bad times should never be sugar coated. Nor should anyone be deceived by the hokum of “streamlining” and “doing more with less.” But there is, in fact, an opportunity when basic systems have been shaken, an opportunity to do things differently. Will Virgin Islanders seize that opportunity?

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  1. Mr. Schneiger, you have done an exceptional job with this series of articles on the VI crisis. Thanks.

    Given your research and analyses, could you suggest two specific interventions that would act as catalysts for further improvements and growth? For the two interventions, please make one dependent on action by the government, and the second action by some coalition of community institutions.


  2. A fair and eloquent analysis of the ” I got mine’s form of government.
    The fix will be painful for all on these wonderful islands and will eventually be the only way out if the swollen branches if government are not trimmed soon.This necessity includes everyone and especially from the top down.We need to understand that the Hess/Hovensa period is over. We need to look back at rhe agrarian society from the 60s that was the mainstay of the economy. Going back to that simpler time alone would alone shave the basics of food costs down.
    With the rundown conditions of our towns we can’t expect tourism to flourish. The time for action has almost passed us by and our elected officials, in their greed, are blind to tgis.

  3. You assessment is spot on! If you look back at the times when we were not in a Financial crisis these problems still existed. I was once told in a Gov. Meeting by a Director to “stop looking at problem” but if you don’t look at problems and find solutions you have a huge mess! This mess has been around for the 40 years that I have been here and it’s worsened. My solution is to take one agency at a time and fix them one by one. As citizens and employees see positive change one by one our community will improve dramatically.

    • A focus on institutional reform is typically called Public Sector Reform. There is a lot of literature about what works and what does not. As expected, it is a structured processes that starts with a policy decision to reform the public sector. What is the likely trigger for such a decision in the USVI at this time?