Former Cabinet minister, Claude Clarke, wrote a good piece in the Sunday Gleaner yesterday, entitled ‘Chaka Chaka Government‘.
What struck me was that this was the first piece I’d read that took issue with a common practice of government financing public programmes from outside its direct budget, using cash surpluses of some bodies when central government is in deficit.
It’s a way to get around financial constraints that bind, as economists say, meaning they really hold spending down.
To me, it’s especially interesting because it’s often how countries get by the bar set by IMF programmes. The Fund know that public spending is more than just that done by central and local governments. So, it often widens the net to include public corporations and agencies to get a definition of ‘general government’ and spending and revenue targets are set for that.
However, one of the problems of doing this is ensuring that accurate financial data are available in a timely manner. If it won’t be, then better to stay with the central government and maybe local government. It’s a compromise that reflects a pragmatic approach.
Mr. Clarke was prompted by the current NHT/Outameni/Golden Grove saga, but the issues are much broader. What was good about his focus was that it showed how governments can be slippery like okra when wanting to push ahead with pet projects. But, it was also good to focus on the running chaos that is often how governments work. Like the proverbial duck on a pond, seeming calm, but going frantic under the surface.
As Clarke notes, ‘There are so many gaps in the Government’s handling of its social and economic responsibilities that the temptation for a cash-rich agency to step into the vacuum must be considerable.’ We know that money is fungible, but the borders between agencies cannot usually be ignored so that one’s money gets used for another’s purposes.
As he also notes, ‘Permitting government agencies to act outside their area of responsibility, in a manner dictated by means and not mandate, undermines the discipline essential to good governance. This do-as-you-like, free-for-all style of governance leaves agencies and portfolios tripping over each other, often for personal or political aggrandisement.’
That indiscipline is at every level of government and makes a mockery of accountability. It’s worsened when ministers do not stand firm against it, or even seek to monitor it. Clearly, they may be benefiting, poltically. They may also be benefiting, personally. That’s why such instances need to be well audited so that we can follow the money. The media also need to probe deeply because the answers and lack of them will tell stories that may remain hidden. They should also note the empty justifications. When NHT board member Percival LaTouche said Outameni “will go down in history as maybe the best buy that we have ever made in the Housing Trust” I shuddered. The implications are clear but the basis is missing. One can easily counter and claim it may be the worst. Time will tell. Hold the smugness.
Those public officials who claim that good intent trumps all are dangerous.
When I first heard the NHT chairman talk about ‘holistic’ approach when discussing the NHT activities, I shivered. NHT is not into holistic anything; it’s into housing solutions. He sounded like a development planning minister, but he wasn’t that person. Therefore, he had over-reached and his organization might have gone past its real mandate.
Clarke touches on another point that I have tried to raise. The PM talks often about ‘joined-up government’, but we often see disjointed administration. It cannot be clearer that things are disjointed than when the minister holding the portfolio doesn’t know of major activities done by one of her agencies. It cannot be clearer than when a chairman trumpets that not informing the minister was in keeping with how his agency had operated in all its 30 – odd year existence. It cannot be clearer than when the PM says glib that she, as the responsible minister, heard about this in the media. Worse still, when she has representation on the board in many direct and proxy forms. With the greatest respect in the world, that is not joined-up government. That is anarchy.
Merriam-Webster defines anarchy as ‘absence of government’. Check. It is also ‘a state of political disorder due to the absence of governmental authority’. Check, again. It’s absence of order. Check, check, check.
I’m not dismissing the details of what NHT did, which has disturbed many on many levels. But, what it shows are some systemic problems. It’s not clear that these exist because of the stripe of the current administration. They do exist because of the way Jamaica has run its public affairs.
In part, good governance cannot come from cronyism. Good governance cannot thrive where reporting upwards is seen as abnormal: that what Douglas claimed.
Good governance also cannot exist or thrive if the solution to the problems is seen as pushing the dust into corners. The PM is within her rights to nominate whoever she chooses to run public corporations. However, joined-up government suggests that when she learns of its absence it cannot be created by adding to those who ensured government was disjointed. However, if I can see that but the PM apparently cannot tells me something else is going on.
I have been raised as a skeptical person. When things seem to not make sense, it means I’m looking at the wrong set of reasons. I can guess at the reasons that would make the decisions seem sensible. They don’t make me comfortable.