Saturday, April 18, 2015

The leaks that rocked the nation!

I think it's safe to say that the current government of The Commonwealth of The Bahamas has more holes in it than a colander. Never in my short lifespan watching politics and government's come and go in The Bahamas have I seen so many leaked documents and information being thrown out to the voracious media with an insatiable appetite for the scandalous.

To put it bluntly: The government has a "Deep Throat" in their midst. An informant, or informants, that have direct access to, or can have access to, sensitive files and documents of things the government is currently working on and ones that are very contentious and sensitive in nature.

No doubt, these leaks have rocked the country. Better yet, the leaks are sinking the government.

The government is shaken to the very core, to the point where many instances they are immobilized by the stunning nature of what happened, what to do about the leaked information, how to address it, contain it and what should they do with regard to plugging the leak?

Take for example the "leaked" Public Hospital Authority (PHA) audit back in 2012. The first of the two leaked audit reports on the PHA, with the second one being leaked to the public some time in 2014.

The leak first appeared on an on-line tabloid for weeks before it hit the national media. The leak indicated several financial and administrative deficiencies that happened over the last several years, the most of which was the lack of proper accounting and record keeping with regard to the medicine stockpile.

To this date, no one "knows" who leaked the information, how did it get into the hands of an on-line tabloid, and why did they feel the need to leak an non-vetted document to the press. Most startlingly was that most of the deficiencies were said to have taken place under the last administration, so why was there such a veil of secrecy on issues related to your political opponent? By far the most confusing and puzzling scenario in that entire affair.

A second leak happened with regard to the management of the Bank of The Bahamas. Issues surrounding the bank and it's financial problems surfaced in the local media, particularly with an established tabloid known for salacious gossip, and was circulating for months before the Governor of The Central Bank began to weigh in on the matter and confirmed what most of the world already knew: The bank was having significant challenges and something must be done.

A reported "leaker" was first dealt with, put on administrative leave, and then after some investigations took place, was found that it was not the person in question and since then that person went back to their job at the bank.

Another leak happened with the audit documents and financial position with the National Insurance Board slightly before and directly after the 2012 general election. This was the first in a series of serious and damning bits of information leaked out to the press about the management and financial prudence of a major revenue generating agency in the public sector.

The leaked information prompted an internal audit of the NIB fund, and as a result ended up with dismissals of key people from their position within the fund. A matter that had lawsuits and the threats of lawsuits thrown into the mix.

There were several other leaks of a semi-financial nature as well. Most notably was the leaked information of the Value Added Tax Coordinator's tax status with the government. It was found that the main proponent for the implementation of the VAT had not paid his real property taxes in years on two major pieces of property that he either owned outright, or had fiduciary responsibility over.

There was the leak of the Chairman of the state owned Bahamas Electricity Corporation's electricity bill to the public, with the public having knowledge of his electricity bill right down to the exact amount owed to the date and to the penny.

There was the leak of the Value Added Tax Draft Bill; the National Health Insurance Draft Bill and report done for the government; the leak of the Letter of Intent for an energy study to be conducted that caused a parliamentary secretary to lose his post after a very lengthy public debate ensued on the matter; and now the leak of the Auditor General's report on the alleged mismanagement of the Urban Renewal Housing programme, a document that had not been vetted by the authorities in charge of the programme, the cabinet minister responsible for the programme or the house of parliament, where the Speaker of The House and the Public Accounts Committee in the House has oversight and jurisdiction.

What's also odd with these leaks is not the nature of the leaks, but also what was not leaked. Oddly enough, questions surrounding the Bahamas Agricultural and Marine Sciences (BAMSI) contracts and insurance documentation that caused, and still is causing, tremendous scandal for the government have not been leaked to date; neither have the details of the mortgage relief plan not been leaked.

Both of those non-leaked issues are extremely important to the governance and economic livelihood of Bahamians depending on their success. The persons in the media would have gauged the sentiments of the Bahamian people on both of these matters, but strangely enough, for as highly scrutinized and as much as both of those issues were debated vigorously in the public, we have yet to have anything in the media affirming any claim pro or con.

Which leads me to suggest that persons in the media have the information and are holding back for whatever reason, or the person leaking the information is tied directly to both issues and leaking it would surely cause problems for them, to say the very least.

Needless to say: The government has a problem. That means we as the citizenry have a problem. I am not going to gloss over the fact that very few, if any of the people alleged to have leaked information, faced stiff penalties for leaking sensitive government documents to the public for whatever reason. But it's just that most of the leaks, if not all, have a particular theme: The are all financial in nature, which means that there is a strong likelihood of them coming out of the Ministry of Finance, the government agency headed by the prime minister. That's just where that is.

As in the case of the United States of America, a media in hyper-drive to the point where their insatiable appetite for eye-grabbing headlines and stories seems unquenchable, staying silent on the leaks will not make this situation any better in the long haul. Especially if the relationship with the media, and now social media, becomes more adversarial than it is useful.

Just to be on the record: I am one in favour of information becoming more free to the public, but not necessarily advocating for a "Freedom of Information Act" to be enacted right now to any large extent. Even though I can appreciate that sooner or later the latter has to happen.

I think there are a few things the government can do with regard to making more information available to the general public, while simultaneously becoming more transparent, and a little more clearer on the rules of engagement on matters pertaining to the way the country is ran.

For example, applications for employment, or licensing requests from the government and things of that nature, can be easily made more free, clear and transparent by: 1. Providing each application or requestor with a checklist (the government uses checklists now in some areas) and a proposed timeline for when they are supposed to receive a response from the government; and 2. Using electronic databases for applications and using time-stamps or application/processing way points that are to be updated electronically when positions change with that application or request so folks can see exactly what the status is.

Another issue, and it can also be put forward for consideration, is that when judgements or decisions are made, the officer that signed off on either the approval or denial should state clearly through a document management system that this is the person that made the decision; this is the judgement or ruling on this particular matter; and this is how we think/feel one should proceed in the future. That would certainly make things more open and transparent where folks can hold their government to account for the decisions they make.

A document management system can work well for the general public wanting satisfaction, and for public servants that have for years complained about the litany of what they would call "bogus and false" reports on their character, assaults that may hinder them from getting increments and other salary increases and promotions.

While these recommendations may not stop the leaks outright, they would start the necessary paper trails in official and clearly transparent details which would make leaking information mundane in the grand scheme of things, because more relevant things to the average citizen's lives are free for their perusal. It may also blunt scandal while putting the government at less risk of hiding more and more documents; i.e., the more documents in private, the more paper work you have to manage and keep track of. 

While we have no idea who or what prompted the leaks, the fact of the matter is that we have a leaker. One which needs to be dealt with before something comes out that really should not come out. Not saying that our public officials should hide information, but some things are best kept out of the public domain until they have been thoroughly vetted and chunked down to palatable bits that the Bahamian people can digest and not placed in unnecessary panic mode about something that may not be an avenue the government wishes to travel.
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