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The issue of public trust

Sunday, September 24, 2017

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Every government has a duty to seek to create and maintain public trust. I have been wrestling with how, as a country, we can do a more effective job in creating the conditions for elected officials to act in ways that engender public trust. Keith Burrowes, writing in the Guyana Chronicle in February 2014, reminds that, “Trust is the glue that holds all interdependent relationships together, and there is probably no more important institution — outside of the family — in which trust is more critical than in the public service.”

The foundational element of public trust revolves around the expectation that a Government will act in the best interest of the country. The opposite, of course, is acting in the best interest of vested interests, including self or one's political party. When a Government acts in ways that are not in the best interest of the country, that important glue disappears and public apathy emerges and mistrust reigns. In this regard, I hope that Dr Peter Phillips's assertion that a political party must not seek State power for the sake of power, but to advance the interest of the country, holds up in practice.

On September 13, while traveling, I heard a programme on a particular radio station that I've never heard on any other station. The programme is called Ask the OPM (Office of the Prime Minister). This programme runs from 11:00 am to 12:00 noon and apparently features representatives of the Government talking about government policy. The presentation on the programme on September 13 was in bright campaign mode with regular refrains of praise for the prime minister. The Member of Parliament (MP) for St James West Central, who is also the attorney general (AG), was the spokesperson. Also present was press secretary for the OPM, Naomi Francis.

(I later learnt that MP for St Elizabeth South Western and junior minister for education had been on the previous week. The programme has apparently been around since July 2017 and featured the prime minister on the 20th, but I was not on the road then!)

The programme began with a mini campaign speech by the MP, followed by an interview led by the host. The host basically asked some soft-ball questions, which were largely met with more campaign-style rhetoric from the MP. A call-in segment then followed in which party loyalists, for the most part, called in and lavished praised on the MP and PM alike.

The commercial breaks had a fair number of government ads. One of my pressing concerns was how is it I never heard this programme on any other station, the process by which this station was selected to host the programme, and whether taxpayer funds were being used to pay for it.

At the end of the programme the press secretary invited listeners to send in comments or questions to a particular e-mail address or call a particular number. I recognised the e-mail address as one to which I had written on at least four occasions and never got a response. So I called the OPM to speak with the goodly press secretary. I did not get the press secretary, but the person with whom I spoke answered my concerns by advising as follows:

a) The programme is heard on that station only.

b) The e-mail address has been out of service since July, which had been reported to the “IT people”.

c) Information concerning how the particular station came to be chosen as the host of the programme and whether the programme is being paid for with taxpayer funds, and if there was a public tender can only be obtained by writing to the press secretary.

I know the OPM monitors the papers, and since the e-mail address is not working (and the person did not offer an alternative), I am using this space to ask some questions, in the public interest:

1) Is the programme being paid for with taxpayer funds, and if so, what is the cost to run each programme?

2) If the answer to (1) is yes, was the decision to engage the particular station to host the programme informed by a public tender process, and when was the tender issued, and how many stations submitted bids?

3) If the answer to (1) is “no”, who is paying the cost of airing the programme?

4) What were the criteria for selecting the particular station, whether it was chosen based on public tender or not?

Public trust, transparency, and accountability

A few days ago it was reported in the media that the Government would be undertaking a road and river training project for the Junction Road in St Mary South Eastern. Concerns were expressed that this project was being undertaken as a prelude to the by-election that is now due. The PM is reported to have told Parliament that the expenditure was approved by Cabinet on August 22, 2016, and was included in the budget, thus the project was not influenced by the contest of a by-election.

Knowing how governments operate, and taking into account the fact that the project was approved over a year ago, it is not far-fetched to conjecture that the need to call a by-election influenced the implementation of this project. It would be interesting to hear the reasons the project was not implemented closer to the time of its approval.

But reports on the source of funds appear conflicting. Are the funds coming from the Government, as was initially reported, or from the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development?

Assurances have also been given by the PM that the project will be managed with the highest level of probity, and the Office of the Contractor General (OCG) will monitor it. But what trust should the country repose in the commitment of the PM on this matter, given that to date he has neither given a statement in Parliament about the OCG's report on the $600-million de-bushing project which started 10 days before the last local government elections, nor taken action against the ministers who the OCG said were either mendacious or corrupt in their actions related to this project?

Joking with crime?

A few days into the Mt Salem zone of special operations (ZOSO), the PM virtually declared “mission accomplished” in an attempt to prove that he had delivered on his controversial campaign promise of Jamaicans being able to “sleep with their doors open and wake up alive”. This declaration was repeated in the Parliament when the PM gave the first report on the ZOSO. He recounted that an old lady in Mt Salem told him that for the first time in several years she can “go to sleep with her window open”.

In a context in which the average daily murder rate nationally has increased by 25 per cent from an average of about four murders per day, when the pre-ZOSO rate is compared with the post-ZOSO rate, can this declaration be seen as anything but joking, PM? Is there a risk, PM, that we are taking serious matters lightly and making a political football of the nation's security? Consider the cry of the mothers in the neighbouring community of Salt Spring in St. James North Western, and The Sunday Gleaner's reporting that there have been 43 murders and 25 shootings in the Montego Hills police area since the start of the year, compared to the seven in Mt Salem.

The country deserves an approach to the handling of crime that transcends political point-scoring and one-upmanship.

Respecting the rule of law

The AG, in her presentation on Ask the OPM, indicated that the Government's number one priority for the medium term was reinforcing and re-igniting respect for the rule of law. Despite the host's gentle prodding concerning how the Government intends to translate this strategic objective into actionable policy, the AG offered no specifics but took refuge in the assertion that not all policing tactics are appropriate for public discourse. Is there not more to igniting respect for the rule of law than mere policing, Madam AG?

But the Government has more than enough opportunities to apply the policy imperative of respect for the rule of law in practice. With what urgency are posts at the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP) filed? How much resources are being committed to fixing courthouses and employing judges? The frustrations of both the DPP and the chief justice indicate that Government is not putting money where its mouth is. Trust grows when actions are consistent with announcements.

Where does the buck stop?

Government ministers have blamed the bureaucracy for the delays in dealing with certain ills in the justice system and, most recently, in the filling of posts at the ODPP. But who is in charge, and where does the buck stop? This approach of blaming others seems to be the modus operandi of the Government.

The AG argued that it was the duty of ministries, departments, and agencies to ensure that when they submit their budgets they align their spending priorities to the strategic priorities of the Government, including and especially “respect for the rule of law”. Yes? But is it not the Cabinet that decides on spending priorities, Madam AG?

The AG and MP also blamed civil servants for the housing conditions in Mt Salem, asserting that it is because they have not been doing their jobs that that the overcrowded housing conditions have arisen. The MP sounded as though she was just seeing this area of her constituency or was just becoming concerned. But if Mt Salem's reputation of being a producer of criminality was so extensive that it “selected itself” as the first ZOSO, which enforcement officer from the St James Parish Council would risk his life by trying to issue stop orders for buildings being erected without approval? But the MP repeatedly gave the assurance that the “Holness Administration” will fix these problems, one by one. Does this promise hold water, given the practice of blaming?

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 c anutethompson1@gmail.com.

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