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Leading at a higher level: Lessons in accountability

Canute Thompson, PhD

Sunday, October 08, 2017

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In October 2016 a dispute arose over whether The University of the West Indies was answerable to the parliaments of countries of the Caribbean, and specifically whether officials from the Mona campus were duty-bound to appear before Jamaica's Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC). The chairman of the PAAC was furious about the (initial) refusal by the Mona campus to appear before the committee, a refusal which the university registrar argued was grounded in its status of reporting to The Queen, inter alia.

In my assessment, and based on prior conversations, the Mona campus was legally right in its refusal. But, despite being right that legally it did not owe a duty of reporting to the Jamaican Parliament, the vice chancellor, who temporarily took charge of the matter, wrote to the chairman of the PAAC and gave the assurance that the university was not only willing, but eager to appear before the PAAC to give a full accounting on all the matters in which the PAAC had an interest. The vice chancellor, in his letter, which was a classic lesson in transformational leadership, made it clear, without stating it, that he was not assuming the responsibility of the university registrar, but rather empowering him. The vice chancellor, said, inter alia, “The University has given full authority to the registrar to address all your questions.”

So here we have a case where the legal position was assessed as not being the most helpful position to advance the cause of stakeholders. I commented on this episode in an article entitled 'Raising the bar of leadership in Jamaica' and stated, among other things:

“History is going to record that on a day when The University of the West Indies faced the existential risk of undermining its relationship with one of its key stakeholders — the Government of Jamaica — the vice chancellor stepped up to the wicket and did what transformational leaders do — take responsibility.”

I stated further: “It is not that The UWI has suddenly become a department of the Government of Jamaica, reversing the reported 2007 opinion of the attorney general; rather, it is that the vice chancellor recognises that, while it is not a lawful requirement for The UWI to appear before the PAAC, it is helpful so to do, and is consistent with the ethic of accountability which is the hallmark of transformational leaders.”

Missing the point

In his inaugural address as prime minister, Andrew Holness declared his belief in the sovereignty of the Jamaican people. Perhaps the learned Gordon Robinson is of the view that he is not on sound legal ground when he declared that he is answerable to the Jamaican people as sovereign. This is perhaps the explanation for his flummoxed assertion, “WTF has sovereignty got to do with legal accountability and jurisdiction?” Answer: “Everything!” The sovereign has unlimited jurisdiction to demand accountability.

I take Holness's words seriously and am expecting him to honour his words by his deeds. Perhaps if Robinson were advising The UWI he would have advised the vice chancellor to hold to the legal position regardless of how unhelpful that position may be.

If accountable, then let us have answers

Prime Minister Holness correctly claims that he is the first prime minister of Jamaica born in the post-Independence era, and promised a new brand of politics. Notwithstanding the fact that his rejection of the questions of the political ombudsman runs counter to the new brand of politics and, notwithstanding the delay in answering the report of the Office of the Contractor General (OCG) on the November 2016 de-bushing programme, which was tabled in July 2017, the country's sovereign awaits answers to the important issues raised by the report. Here are a few of the questions to which answers are warranted, whether or not Gordon Robinson agrees.

1. Does Holness accept the assertion of the National Works Agency (NWA) that ordinarily bushing and grass-cutting exercises cost $100 million, and if so, what was the justification for a $600-million expenditure?

2. Can Holness explain how one contractor made a profit of 73 per cent?

3. Was the selection of contractors by the Cabinet in keeping with government procurement guidelines, given the assertion of the NWA head that he was instructed by Cabinet to enter into contracts with a select group of contractors to do work in a specified amount, in specified locations?

4. Does Holness accept the finding of the OCG that three ministers were either mendacious or insincere? And if so, what does he intend to do about it?

5. Were not the “facilitators”, who were given money to pay over to labourers, known Jamaica Labour Party supporters?

I think Jamaica should get answers about the de-bushing programme and, for there to be accountability, equally we should get an accounting from the People's National Party about campaign finance money.

Countless opportunities

There are countless opportunities that come to each of us to lead at a higher level as we seek to inspire change. The Gleaner's report of Holness's comments regarding the queries of the political ombudsman incorrectly conveyed the impression that the PM had uttered the words “Not you, Madam.” I accept the correction that Holness's words (re-stated below) were stylistically different:

“Let me start with concerns that have been raised. The contractor general [is] the constituted authority to oversee the contracting process and the National Contracts Commission (NCC) also has a constituted role, in terms of statutory role, in ensuring the contract process is integrous and I respond to them in these matters…”

I hold the view that the substance of his words amount to exactly what The Gleaner had conveyed. So fighting over whether or not he used the headlined words is as futile as it is puerile. The real issue is whether what Holness said, in both what he uttered and intended to convey, took the country higher or lower in terms of building a culture of accountability.

Would it not have been a most moving endorsement of Holness's swearing-in promise if he had gone on to say: “I am, however, mindful of the deep sensitivities in this matter and, while I do not have a duty to respond to the political ombudsman on this, in the interest of transparency and in upholding the principles of accountability to which my Administration is committed, I will happily share the information.”

That closing, in my opinion, would have set the prime minister apart and raised his brand as a transformational leader who is not wedded to old-style politics, and as one who puts country above party.

Instead, despite the unanswered questions arising from the OCG's report on the de-bushing programme, Holness's closing was:

“The Government is not using State resources for partisan benefit, and that is just a definitive statement, and in this particular matter, for the allocation of resources for the road. There is no basis for anyone to lodge any complaints for political abuse of public resources.”

A golden opportunity to take leadership to a higher level was lost.

But the distinction that some of the prime minister's spokespeople have been trying to make between reporting to the contractor general and not to the political ombudsman is curious. Do they not both represent the interests of the Jamaican citizen? How does the refusal to provide information to an office which is acting in the public's interest, and is a creature of Parliament, a behaviour that affirms the sovereignty of the Jamaican people? The political ombudsman may know a thing or two about preventing conflicts.

Leading at a higher level

Tom Price, former secretary of health and human services in the Trump Administration, was forced to resign and did so on Friday, September 29, 2017. His resignation arose out of his having used private jets to travel about the country and overseas on government business. The use of private jets is lawful, but having racked up US$1 million in travel expenses in nine months raised serious questions of judgement. But he did not break any law.

Mick Mulvaney, the director of the office of management and budget, in commenting on Price's conduct is reported to have said: “People must use their common sense…not because something is lawful makes it right.” Mulvaney may have read 1 Corinthians 10: 23 in which Paul, the apostle, teaches that the fact that something is lawful does not make it profitable or edifying.

But, while the counsel of Mulvaney to his fellow Republican spoke to what he should not have done, although it was legal, there is a more beautiful model that the vice chancellor displayed in the handling of the controversy over whether the university should have appeared before the PAAC. The vice chancellor's approach amounted to saying, “Although I have a right not to attend and to be questioned, it would not be helpful to the cause of building a better society if I exercised that right. So I will set aside my right not to answer and answer fully in the interest of all.”

In his book, Leading At A Higher Level, Kenneth Blanchard argues that accountability is the touchstone of leadership that stands out and is above the ordinary. Blanchard explains that among the behaviours that count as leading at a higher level are the expression of values in behaviours (not words), and delivering on promised performance. In both respects, top management (whether in the Trump or Holness administrations or The University of the West Indies) is duty-bound to be exemplary.

Dr Canute Thompson is head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning, lecturer in the School of Education, and co-founder and chief consultant for the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative, at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also author of three books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or canutethompson1@gmail.com.

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