25 Jan 2016

It’s worth repeating

In a news report, headlined “Thieves target vacant HDC units” in last Sunday’s Express, the Minister of Housing, Marlene McDonald, when contacted for comment, said she was not aware of the looting and thievery taking place until she was told so by the Sunday Express. “Now that you tell me, I will have to look into it,” she is reported to have said, notwithstanding the fact she has been on the job for close to five months.

Also, recently the Minister of National Security, Edmund Dillon, when asked by reporters whether the surveillance cameras and scanners were installed and functioning at the Port of Spain Prison, replied he had to find out from the Commissioner of Prisons, despite the serious issue of prison security being in the news for months, sometimes under banner headlines.

Similarly, an irritating habit of many ministers of the previous government, when questioned on matters of public concern by the media, invariably replied that “ah looking into it”, or “I am being advised”, or “I am awaiting a report”, or “my hands are tied”.

These responses are symptoms of deep underlying problems which have ingrained themselves in ministerial office in this country: malaise, incivility, incompetence, indifference, ignorance, complacency, contempt for citizens once in office, slackness and general lack of awareness of how to discharge one’s duties and responsibilities as a Government minister.

Close to five months in office and a minister does not know what is taking place in her area of responsibility! This is appalling and unacceptable. Ministers McDonald and Dillon, both of you should have been summarily dismissed.

In efficient organisations there are control or feedback mechanisms in place to ascertain and be informed of what is taking place in a timely manner and whether goals are being achieved or not; that’s how you keep on top of things. If I may, I will explain how these basic mechanisms work.

Many ministries have various State agencies, corporations and limited companies under their purview. These entities have specific mandates or purposes for which they were formed which are spelt out in law, ie, their act of incorporation.

Furthermore, the mandate of each entity together with appropriate strategies and action plans for achieving the entities’ mandates within an appropriate time frame form a central part of their strategic and other plans. Monthly progress reports are prepared and submitted to the entities’ line ministries.

Are these progress reports reviewed by ministers and permanent secretaries? Every minister should be thoroughly familiar with the plans and programmes of all agencies under their control and the progress being made toward their achievement.

In addition, other monthly, quarterly and annual reports on key area such as operations, finance, human resource, internal audit, communications and administration are prepared which are reviewed by the board of directors of these entities and some subject to scrutiny by parliamentary oversight bodies such as the Public Accounts (Enterprises) Committee and the Auditor General.

Is it demanding too much of ministers and permanent secretaries to ask for and review these reports, especially the monthly reports, so that timely action could be taken to remedy any deficiencies identified? The operative words here are “timely action”.

Had Minister McDonald been doing this, most likely she would have been informed of the lack of effective security. After all, the Housing Development Corporation has thousands of unoccupied properties all over the country and the provision of adequate security must have been an ongoing concern.

Just as effective as timely reports are common-sense approaches: site visits, discussions with heads of departments and use of knowledge gained from information in the public domain and Parliament.

Are there any other ministers who are not fully au courant with what is transpiring in their ministry or agencies under their control and direction? Do they know how to be informed? Do they know how to do their job? Are they waiting for another LifeSport or exposé in the media, or until the anger and frustration of citizens boil over into violent protests before action is taken?

All this talk about being in charge is pure political bombast. Indeed, we have merely changed a Tweedledum government for a Tweedledee Government. I am not sanguine that there will be any improvement in the lives of citizens over the next five years.

Bhagiratty Boodhan