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Saturday, June 6, 2015

Democratising public institutions: Reform needed!

If Bahamians got through the implementation of Value Added Tax, they can get through anything. Thus the confidence I have in reforming our public institutions charged with monitoring the integrity of our systems.

No matter how altruistic a person may appear be, or persons, things happen. Well, politics happens! Even with persons in office that are less than worthy of being in charge of a slum village, let alone a thriving country, when they taste the power of the office and find that the processes and institutions that were once abhorred when in opposition, become very, very useful and necessary. Yes!

That's life. That's people. That's the human element. This is why advocating for strengthening public institutions and democratising to the people more institutions should be a priority.

There was an interview conducted on one of the local radio shows. The leader of The Democratic National Alliance, Branville McCartney, is advocating for the position of Attorney General to be a stand-alone elected position. He made these remarks in light of recent events on the rules and regulations of The Public Accounts Committee and a matter involving a sitting cabinet minister interfering with a judicial and administrative matter, and the consistent appearance of The Office of Attorney General being placed in situations where it may have to investigate and give rulings on matters involving their colleagues.

That indeed is a very progressive and comprehensive approach to democratising institutions, and more along this line of thinking is needed in today's Bahamas.

However, I wish to direct your attention to two other posts, both equally as important, both constitutionally mandated and both with latitude to carry out their duties on behalf of The Bahamas and the people they serve: The Office of the Auditor General and The Public Service Commission.

The Auditor General's office has the constitutional mandate to investigate public expenditures at any given point and time to check for inconsistencies and irregular spending and fiduciary issues that may be as a result of malfeasance, negligence or all out theft and fraud. The Public Service Commission has the constitutional mandate to exercise disciplinary control over public servants, in addition to give advice on promotions and increases in emoluments for public servants.

Before the recent information brought to light on the improper spending in The Public Hospital Authority and The Urban Renewal Programme, and just recently a 52 week jobs programme, very few persons had the slightest knowledge that there was such a person as an Auditor General, the person had a name and he had such a powerful agency.

Even fewer realize that we have The Public Service Commission as it is either, let alone who sits as the commissioners.

While there has been calls for the creation of an Office of The Ombudsman, the Public Service Commission has most of the framework to deal with some of the administrative and policy matters as it stands now. The only difference in this scenario is that the Commission only deals with internal public service matters, which means it does not hear external complaints on the civil service, wider corruption and criminal complaints of fraud and public service malfeasance and neither does it typically investigate past middle management.

In light of the myriad of claims of public servants abusing their position against the general public, and against their own colleagues and comrades in the service, productivity of their services, and even more so with regard to the recent issue of a senior cabinet minister allegedly interfering with a civil servant's duties as an out-island commissioner and a sitting magistrate that went all the way to the desk of the Attorney General (which it should not have, because the public service commission has the constitutional authority to discipline, and by extension the power to investigate and probe under this one perspective), the position is and can be made more important to the framework of The Bahamas than many people think it is or even care to know that it is or can be.

As it stands now, both positions of Auditor General and Public Service Commissioners are appointed by The Prime Minister, in consultation with The Leader of the Opposition and their recommendations are given to The Governor General for their approval. An approval that they will not, in most instances, withhold or reject for any reason, may it be slight or drastic.

So, with all of that constitutionally mandated power, why aren't they more effective and above all of the public scrutiny of their work? Well, let's examine the problem:
  1. They, while constitutionally mandated, are appointed positions. So, any government that has the power to appoint, has the power to disappoint.
  2. Since they are appointed, it means that their first priority is to the people that appointed them. Or, the person that has the power to revoke their appointment. Not the wider public.
  3. While they are fixed positions constitutionally, because they are appointed, means that if they wanted sensitive information to carry out their work from a government that has the power to remove them, they know how far to go with regard to their request for information to carry out their investigations.
  4. These positions do not have veto powers, reach in powers above what a sitting government allows them to reach in on, and neither do they have at their command any supplementary investigations' agency, public or private, which they can deputize to assist with information gathering aside from their own.
  5. They don't have money earmarked in the national budget to carry out their work, even if they had the manpower and all other forms of powers legally mandated to them.
These five critical points are thee most important issues with regard to the proper functioning of these agencies for the benefit of the wider public. All other problems, optical inconsistencies and administrative weaknesses, tie into these five core points.

So, how does one solve the problem that these positions of sinecure allow to exacerbate? To follow the line of the DNA's leader, elections would be a good start.

Of course, making them elected offices mean amending the constitution to stipulate that fair and due elections must take place. This almost certainly means a referendum to the people. A referendum would be fitting in such important instances such as this.

While The Bahamas has faltered on winning referenda in the past, if a referendum is what is needed to ensure such institutions are strengthened for a better democracy, then a referendum is what we must have.

Along with elections, I wish for my audience to consider some other important governmental strengthening issues that may be addressed with regard to reforming The Public Service Commission, The Auditor General's office and introducing an Office of the Ombudsman, at the very least:
  1. Earmarked money that does not go below a certain percentage threshold, and not to be manipulated by the government of the day through any means other than a direct act of parliament and no more than 2/3rd's of the vote. Not a simple majority.
  2. Allow for strict term limits for each post to run outside of the national elections. This would provide clarity during a non-election season where voters can assess the integrity of each candidate and their suitability for the position. This would also work in favour of persons not of the persuasion of the sitting government to be elected if the general population feels as if a sitting government needs more oversight.
  3. No person aside from a sitting member of parliament should be barred from running for any post. If a former member of parliament wishes to run for a post, he must be one parliamentary term removed in order to become eligible.
  4. No person should hold the post for more than two consecutive terms. In the event they wish to hold office again, they must wait one term to again become eligible.  
  5. Mandate for these offices more investigatory powers, subpoena powers and disciplinary powers in light of them giving their advice on final measures to the Governor General and the parliament.
  6. Allow for these agencies to contract and sub-contract persons or firms to assist with their duties if need be. These requests should have a time limit for their approvals and must be approved by the parliament in direct concert with the Public Accounts Committee on a 2/3rd's majority vote.
  7. Allow for the powers of prosecution for the office of the Auditor General and Ombudsman, separate and apart from the Attorney General on matters directly affecting their mandated duties.
These are not radical ideas. These are understandable ideas. In many countries, albeit not within the Commonwealth Realm, there are elections held for the Auditor General and Ombudsman.

I think that, in light of our loopholes and issues surrounding the lack of true oversight in many of our agencies, this is one time where The Crown has not grown with the culture of politics within its former colonies.

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