Worrisome trend in the treatment of our oversight institutions
The vital importance to our democracy of oversight bodies in monitoring and reporting on the conduct and performance of public officials is impatient of debate. These oversight bodies fall into two categories: independent agencies such as the Auditor General, the Integrity Commission and the Independent Commission of Investigations, and bi-partisan bodies such as some of the sessional Select Committees of Parliament. The functioning of the latter cannot escape the political influence inherent in the make-up of our Parliament. The importance of the independent agencies is enhanced because they are expressly insulated by law and our Constitution from such influence.
A worrying development has emerged in which the findings and actions of the Auditor General and Integrity Commission are being challenged not just stridently but with vehement indignation. Perhaps because its mandate focuses so much on investigations of possible corruption by public officials, the Integrity Commission has become a designer target. It owes it to itself and all of us to recognise that this imposes on it a weighty obligation to be thorough, fair, and objective and to be mindful that preserving not just its integrity but public confidence is essential to its very existence.
Public confidence is less affected by the justice that is done than by the extent to which that justice is “manifestly and undoubtedly seen to be done”. No one is infallible and errors of judgment may occur occasionally, but when they do they must unhesitatingly be admitted and corrective actions taken.
The Integrity Commission has, on more than one occasion, failed to display the circumspection that its mandate demands that it exerts and this has provided ammunition for those who, fearful of that very mandate, have their weapons trained at it. However, the role of the Integrity Commission is far too important to us as a nation to allow it to be hobbled by those who are only too eager to pounce on its indiscretions to discredit it.
The Office of the Auditor General, the oldest of our oversight bodies and enshrined in our Constitution, has recently found itself too in the crosshairs of some public officials. Appearing before a parliamentary committee, one such senior official in a testy outburst declared “The Auditor General is not at large. Her opinions do not bind me. The law binds me. Until the Auditor General can provide, in law, under Section 25 of the [Public Procurement] Act, I have no obligation in law to adhere to any finding that is not predicated in law”.
That is partly true. The Auditor General’s opinions do not bind anyone. They merely provide information – useful information – on which decision makers and policy makers can take action. But it is not true to say that a public official has “no obligation in law to adhere to any finding (of the Auditor General) that is not predicated in law”. Even if it is not specifically provided in law, the public official is obliged to adhere to such a finding if a policy directive is issued to that effect and it is not specifically prohibited by law.
More recently, the head of a statutory agency, in challenging the findings of the Auditor General, raised questions about the competence of her auditors. There is nothing wrong with this, one may argue. Public officials whose performance is the subject of adverse findings are entitled to defend themselves and challenge the basis of those findings. That is how a democracy works. However, some of the exchanges I have witnessed have been more combative than deliberative and leave me with the impression that personal reputations, if not egos, take precedence over the public interest.
In the case of the Auditor General, the opportunity to challenge her findings would have been provided long before the report is submitted to Parliament and, presumably, the response and explanation offered would have been included in the report. There would be no need, therefore, for the bluster and grandstanding in Parliament.
We have a fashion for badmouthing our public agencies for non-performance or mal-performance, many for good reason. Up to recently, our oversight bodies had been spared this treatment. Over the many years that I served in Parliament, including as chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, I had never seen the Office of Auditor General “roughed up” the way it has been on a few occasions in recent times, even when politically explosive issues were being dealt with. At times, its findings were contested, explanations or clarification offered, sometimes new information presented and at other times shortcomings acknowledged – all done in a dignified, respectful way. The cass-cass that I have observed in recent times is a new phenomenon.
Things like these hardly ever happen without context. When public officials see parliamentarians beating up on oversight bodies and displaying scant regard for their important purpose, they may conclude, as some seem to have done, that it is perfectly okay for them to do likewise. Discrediting oversight bodies in the eyes of the public is one way of preventing them from fulfilling that purpose. I urge us all to be careful.
— Bruce Golding served as Jamaica’s eighth prime minister from September 11, 2007 to October 23, 2011.