#phonebillgate: another case of trial balloons with much hot air and little context 

Jamaicans like to engage in what I call ‘gotcha politics’: if a piece of information is unearthed about political or government activities, then it is thought to be something that can and will trip up someone. The problem with this is that information (or data) on its own rarely has much meaning; it needs context. So, to cite a figure and no context is often as good as not citing anything at all. We love numbers, even though we seem not well equipped in analyzing them–many say Jamaicans are innumerate on many levels. So, many, including our media houses, trot out numbers, often culled from press releases, or drawn from reliable and unreliable sources, with little depth to their commentary on what the numbers may mean. So, let’s move on to the latest example.

A Jamaican media house used access to information legislation to get details of government ministers’ recent cell phone use. Now, this is a good thing in terms of follow-up. In 2014, such details were released and showed less than due care in the use and monitoring of ministerial mobile phone costs, and led one junior foreign minister, Arnoldo Brown, to scurry around to explain his $1 million bill: he ‘blamed what he said was the high cost of roaming for voice and data services‘–a shocking level of naivety in one so young and given such responsibilities. That was the gotcha moment.

Now, if a public official is using government resources for personal purposes or wasting or misusing those resources, we may have several problems and could easily point to corruption. Clearly, the lines between private and public affairs (of the non-romantic type) can be blurred, and it may be impractical to not use government equipment for personal business at certain times, and means usually exist to set the record straight by paying out of one’s own pocket for any personal use, or justify use as official. That’s how things used to be at the IMF, when monthly office phone bills were itemized and each staff member had to identify personal calls and pay for them. This is standard practice in many public and private organizations. We can all agree, however, that the public budget is not for private use and scrutinizing use by public officials is good.

Now, to seek an update for such use is legitimate, but when the data are obtained they need to be understood and explained. The Government’s Communications and PR Director sought to get in on the act and put the latest numbers for 2017 (JLP administration) into context by comparing them with 2014 (PNP administration), trying a gotcha moment, I suspect, but it needed to be heavily qualified:

Well, the first problem is deciding if one is comparing apples and oranges: ‘2014’ was July 2013-June 2014; ‘2017’ is actually March 2016-February 2017 (covering the first full year of the current administration). On that basis, the ‘year’ use of the current administration though seemingly higher than its predecessor’s, is not strictly comparable. Those who analyse data a lot will argue that the figures could have been put on a comparable basis, eg each set limited to July through February, which would have covered the same 8 months out of 12. Also, both sets of data are incomplete, but let’s put aside the missing data, for the moment. The time periods covered are not similar, except in duration. So, less ‘gotcha’ than it appears, in my opinion. The media house doesn’t analyze what is going on, merely describing what numbers exist.

But, what is comparing administrations supposed to tell us? Let’s just think about a few scenarios. We can blanket our consideration by accepting that each administration has different objectives and priorities, so any similarities may just be mere coincidence, and differences are to be expected.

  • Do we know if each administration has a ministerial phone use policy and if it’s being adhered to? For instance, are bills reviewed regularly for inappropriate use and any such use corrected or paid for over time?
  • Do we know anything about the communications style of various ministers? (If you are a face-to-face person, then your external phone use will likely be less because you meet rather than talk at a distance.)
  • If a minister is tech savvy, he/she may use the Internet him-/herself to research or communicate, which may incur more personal cellular data use than if the minister relied on staff to do that.
  • If you are a minister who is very active on the ground, then you may be out of the office a lot compared to someone who isn’t that way, and so may need to be in mobile telephone contact with others (by voice or other messaging methods) more than if you can be found in your office.
  • The world in 2013-2014 is not the same as in 2016-2017: those differences should bring forward different actions and therefore different use of resources.
  • We know nothing (at this stage) about who is being called or calling (many local plans may charge for incoming as well as outgoing calls). Ten calls to the White House are equivalent to how many calls to our PM?

More important, is high cost reflecting the kind of contractual arrangements in place? Without knowing the provider and terms on which services are being offered, what use is it to tell people about the cost of use? The issue to be tackled may well be whether government has obtained the most favourable contracts available. Is government being gouged, eg for penalty use outside a plan?

(I used to have mobile service with both of our mobile phone service providers; neither plan was the same: one offered lots of data and lots of minutes, the other offered more data and similar minutes; the latter was dearer than the former; my usage rarely strayed away from the regular post-paid plan total because I hardly ever came near to talking enough to exceed the limits and used wi-fi when possible to curb data usage. I decided to ditch one provider and merge my phones onto the service of the other provider, then ditch one line all together. My monthly phone cost is now about the same with one phone line versus two, but I have three times as much cellular data with that plan than I had with the two plans. Better deal by far.)

RJR have done well to unearth the data, but really done little in explaining what they could mean. Telling readers that Minister X’s phone bill was high in a particular month-‘The highest cell phone bill in the period, of the bills RJR News received, is that of Transport Minister Mike Henry. His figure stood at almost $696,000. More than $326,000 of the amount was racked up in February this year alone.’–matters not without saying what was going on in ministerial life during that period. In the case of Minister Henry, is the implication that his involvement with his football team Humble Lion during a trying time in the Red Stripe Premier League might have involved using a lot of government mobile phone services?With the mere circulation of details of phone bills we know little about what government ministers are doing and whether the use and cost of phone services tells a good or bad story.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)