Columns

JEEP runs up against red light

KEN CHAPLIN

Tuesday, April 03, 2012    

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GIVEN the unemployment crisis in Jamaica, especially among young people, there is no doubt that the government's Jamaica Emergency Employment Programme (JEEP) will make a significant, positive impact on Jamaica's social fabric. Much credit should be given to the Portia Simpson Miller administration for the formulation of JEEP and the speed with which it is being implemented. JEEP is much like the Jamaica Infrastructure Development Programme carried out by the last JLP government.

Unfortunately, JEEP seemed to have breached government's procurement guidelines and came upon a red light as it was being chased for its licensing papers by the Office of the Contractor General. The permanent secretary in the Ministry of Transport, Works and Transport, Audrey Sewell, who has accountability for JEEP's expenditure, in a confidential memorandum to her minister, Dr Omar Davies, expressed concern that there was a lack of information flow to her regarding JEEP.

“I call attention to the fact that the programme is being closely monitored by the Office of the Contractor General,” she wrote. “Recently, I was written to by the contractor general, and asked to respond to specific questions regarding the programme. I informed the contractor general that as soon as information becomes available he would subsequently be advised of some of the outstanding matters. It is therefore of concern that I learnt through the media of the planned launch of the programme and the allocation of $10 million per constituency. I am requesting that I be advised as soon as possible whenever decisions are taken about the programme, especially the expenditure, since they have implications for procurement.”

It was sensible and appropriate for Sewell to so advise her minister so that she can answer any future questions by the contractor general or Parliament. Permanent secretaries should not be left out of the loop in such matters, as they are accounting officers answerable to Parliament. That is not how governance works. Sewell had to protect herself. However, the confidential memorandum should not have been sent to the OCG. The Office of the Permanent Secretary said that the confidential document was sent to the OCG by an officer in the ministry. The officer must have been instructed to do so by someone from above. Under public service practice, Permanent Secretary Sewell has to accept full responsibility.

Questions have been raised about the action of the Office of the Contractor General in sending the confidential document to the media for publication. This is just not done. I cannot recall this happening during my 37 years in the public service, serving at one time as manager of a public company and since. I think the OCG could have handled the matter differently, perhaps by stating that they had evidence to prove that the permanent secretary was being left out of the loop in the implementation of JEEP, point to the seriousness of the matter and call on the minister to correct the situation to ensure that the right practice is followed.

In taking the OCG to task for making the confidential memorandum available to the public, the Permanent Secretaries Board sought to downplay the circumstances under which the memorandum came into the possession of the OCG. Said the Board, “The question of whether the memorandum was taken or sent is not one of particular significance, notwithstanding the fact that the OCG has sought to utilise a technicality to defend its position in that minor aspect. Of much larger concern,” said the Board, “is the public release of the document which was of a confidential nature, and the implications of that action for the Westminster model of governance within which Jamaica's political system of government is supposed to function.”

On the other hand, the confidential memorandum was not taken from the office of the ministry when the OCG team went there in search of other documents. It was sent to the OCG by an operative in the ministry. Another point is, to keep Sewell out of the loop was a serious matter which should have been reported to the Governor General, Ministry of Finance, Permanent Secretaries Board and the Jamaica Civil Service Association. The statement by the Permanent Secretaries Board drew the wrath of the OCG. In a release, the OCG said the statement by the PSB, among other things, questioned the lawful authority of the OCG to publish the confidential memorandum. Indeed, the PSB has gone as far as to direct the OCG by warning it that it is the expectation of the Board that there will not be a recurrence of this type of action and that there will be strict adherence to the spirit and intent of the Contractor General Act by all concerned.

The OCG said that it considers the PSB's statement to be an ill-advised and unlawful incursion upon the lawful authority and jurisdiction of the OCG under the Contractor General Act. At best, the PSB is substantially misguided in the understanding of its role, functions and lawful powers of the OCG. The statement said that the OCG is an independent Anti- Corruption Commission of Parliament which is vested with the statutory mandate, under Section 4 (1) (a) of the Contractor General Act, to ensure, among other things, that government contracts are awarded impartially and on merit and in circumstances that do not involve impropriety or irregularity.

It seems to me that the OCG should continue to investigate vigorously and not be intimidated by any organisation. I do not see why the ministry should not fully co-operate in the investigation in the interest of the people, government and the country. It is true that the style of the Contractor General is rather unorthodox sometimes, but he has been getting good results. In the meantime, Contractor General Greg Christie has written to Governor General Sir Patrick Allen to “formally confirm that he will not seek nor accept an extension to his initial sevenyear term of office”. This is regrettable because during his sojourn illegal procurement of government services and goods has been on the run and he has brought some order and respectability to government procurement practices. He pledged in his usual forthright style that until he demits office he will perform to the best of his ability, continue to fearlessly serve only the collective interest of the people and taxpayers of Jamaica, while faithfully discharging his functions as contractor general. I hope that his successor will be as tough and uncompromising in his task to rescue Jamaica from the sea of corruption.

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