Editorial

Something good can come from cellphone fiasco

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

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For the fact that it happened to two different political administrations, we can safely conclude that there is a problem in the system that led to Finance Minister Audley Shaw's $8-million cellphone bill.

It might be fun to play the national political football game with Mr Shaw — and some of it is deserved — but all that is after the fact. Unless we look deeper into the broader picture of what is happening with government spending, it will recur in another few years. What happened with Mr Arnaldo Brown of the People's National Party (PNP) and his $1-million cellphone bill is still fresh in memory.

Government ministries and their busy ministers who are constantly being distracted must have their various expenditure monitored by the accountable public servants. And it is not just their cellphone bills. We suggest that light bills, water bills, gasoline bills, credit card bills and the like, be watched like a hawk.

Mr Shaw got caught by the abysmally high data usage charges and obviously had no public servant looking out for him. The high data charges are of concern to CEOs of big corporations and streetside coconut vendors alike. The telecoms firms are bleeding us. But we are consoled that programs like WhatsApp are growing alternatives.

Any competent financial controller of private companies will admit that they have had to, from time to time, remind their companies' managers of the high cellphone bills. Most well-run companies have capped expenditure on such bills, with the amount depending on the level of the manager.

Perhaps some good has come out of Mr Shaw's cellphone brouhaha because the Government is now to put a cap on the cellphone bills of all ministers. We suggest that the cap be widened to apply not only to individuals, but to the entire ministry, taking in their electricity, water bills, stationery and all other such bills that are usually taken for granted but which climb up to humongous amounts of money.

Another good we hope will come of it is that it will put keener attention on wastage in government. This is an intractable problem which has so far defied every administration. We recall the Rex Nettleford Committee and the Douglas Orane Committee which brought serious focus on wastage in government, until the proverbial nine days had been exhausted.

So we accept Mr Shaw's heartfelt apology because the problem is bigger than him, as it was bigger than Mr Brown. But we will see how vigorously he works as finance minister to see that a robust expenditure monitoring programme is implemented across the State bureaucracy.

There is one other thing we would suggest to Mr Shaw: reverse the $1-million discount given by the cellphone service provider. Let it be paid from government coffers. That way we can feel at ease that the service provider won't be asking any special favours from the finance ministry on the basis of 'one hand wash the other'.

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