Autopilot, ethical leadership and governance

J Lewis

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

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Our Government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches people by example… If the Government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man [person] to become a law; unto himself... — Justice Louis D Brandeis, US Supreme Court Justice

The talk of the town last week was the release of the damning report on the operations at Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica (PCJ)/Petrojam by Auditor General Pamela Monroe-Ellis. Let me use this opportunity to congratulate the auditor general and her team for their hard work over the months of investigation and the final publication of the report. I am sure it was no easy task. But, while I congratulate the Auditor General's Department, I cannot forget the traumatised decent, hard-working ordinary staff at the government agencies who had to watch in silence as they witnessed explicit nepotism, profiteering, and merrymaking while billions of dollars of oil go unaccounted for (let's separate the 0.4 per cent that is lost due to evaporation, etc). One traumatised employee, on hearing the breaking news, made this comment, “Politics makes everything so much harder… this set (meaning the Jamaica Labour Party) is disgusting, greedy and disrespectful” implying that she has seen both sides 'shell down' the oil money.

For me, the auditor general's report is by no means alarming. What it does is put a stamp of credibility and non-political facts to what was always known, and what we have seen over the years in government on both sides of the fence, as far back as the' 60s — corruption, corruption, and more corruption.

Governance on autopilot

This issues at Petrojam can be summed up as unethical leadership and poor governance, both of which creates the right environment for nepotism and corruption. The auditor general's report concludes the following with regards to oversight, “Petrojam's board of directors failed to carry out its oversight responsibility.” It stated that the board and subcommittee meetings were infrequently held; little deliberation on the strategic direction of Petrojam; directors' roles were limited to making administrative decisions and approvals; no formal reporting framework to PCJ; and the PCJ was not active in performing its oversight responsibilities in monitoring Petrojam's operations and providing strategic guidance. This is what I call governance on autopilot.

Seven months ago I wrote in this newspaper about ethical leadership and governance. The question was asked: Why governance fails? It fails because of a deficit in ethical leadership. It fails because of an absence of rules and procedures. It fails when an entity or institution depends on one individual (or a few powerful ones) to uphold the ethics of the organisation, rather than everyone (including the board and the minister) taking collective responsibility to protect the integrity of that organisation.

Ethics and governance do not necessarily fail because people make mistakes. Appointing someone or awarding a tender, thinking you are following the rules, could be a mistake. It is what you do next that counts. Do you keep on lying? Or do you privately admit that what was done was wrong, but publicly say it was fine? These would be ethical failures.

Our politicians need to learn that when they are in power, it is not their power. It is assumed that they will not make decisions that will improve the fortunes of their family or friends, but rather those that enhance the lives of the entire collective, including those that did not vote for them. If you have been elected, you must repay the trust that has been placed in you with the highest standard of ethical behaviour.

The principles of ethical governance should be mainstreamed in the public sector, and the time has come for there to be an institutionalised body that gives ethical oversight to the public sector.

Watershed and accountability

In response to the auditor general's report, the prime minister declared that the Government fully accepts the report and that it was a “watershed moment for transparency and accountability”. Readers, don't hold your breath, it is a watershed moment for transparency, but not I am not sure about the accountability, Mr Prime Minister.

On January 23, 2018, in a column on reforming the Jamaica Constabulary Force in the Jamaica Observer I said the following: “The notion of accountability is an amorphous concept that is difficult to define in precise terms. However, accountability exists when there is a relationship where an individual or body and the performance of tasks or functions by that individual or body are subject to another's oversight, direction or request that they provide information or justification for their actions.” This is what some agencies in government need, but resist it whenever there is an attempt to hold them accountable.

There is a view in the public sector that being held accountable means being in trouble. They feel that when they do something good nothing happens, but when they mess up all hell breaks loose.

But the concept of accountability involves two distinct stages: answerability and enforcement. Answerability refers to the obligation of the Government, its agencies, and public officials to provide information about their decisions and actions and to justify them to the public and those institutions of accountability tasked with providing oversight. Enforcement suggests that the public or the institution responsible for accountability can sanction the offending party or remedy the contravening behaviour.

The auditor general's report has only dealt with one side of the accountability coin; we will await the outcome of the investigation by the Major Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Agency (MOCA) team and others. However, the former general manager, who resigned in the wake of the scandal, his boss (the former energy minister), and the former board must all be sanctioned if the evidence shows that they are culpable of any wrongdoing, and by wrongdoing I mean unethical as well as criminal behaviour.

I could not help but renew my call for Prime Minister Andrew Holness to mandate all board directors in the public sector and all ministers to attend my specially revised course on governance and accountability. This is what they will learn:

Unit 1: Eradicating 'tisms' (favouritism, cronyism, nepotism)

Unit 2: Ethical leadership in the age of VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity)

Unit 3: Governance Innovation (Rudimentary principles of 21st-century governance)

Unit 4: Executive decision-making in times of leakage

Unit 5: Fundamentals of the people's business

Unit 5: Accountability to the Citizenry

Unit 6: Restitution Luke's Way

I should have mentioned that the Opposition is welcome to attend the classes, especially since my mother always warn me that “every dog has its day”. History has taught us that there is a political cycle of corruption and bad governance in this country. I know Christmas is around the corner, so I am not expecting a full class, but they are free to register in January. While you wait to attend classes, I plead with everyone who leads a public body (minister, board directors and public servants) to follow these three simple ethical codes to govern your behaviour as you perform your duties:

1) exercise your powers diligently and honestly;

2) act in good faith and in the best interest of good governance;

3) act in all respects in a manner that is consistent with the integrity of your office or the government.

If you do, you will save the country billions, and maybe we would be able to reach the “5 in 4” economic growth. Think about it.

Henry J Lewis is a lecturer at the University of Technology, Jamaica, School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Send comments to the Observer or

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