Sun | Aug 20, 2017

Building effective government Boards

Published:Thursday | March 17, 2016 | 3:00 AMDameon Black

Given that Prime Minister Andrew Holness has had his Cabinet installed, the ministers and the civil servants who report to them have turned their attention to the process of managing their portfolios. One critical aspect has to do with the establishment of boards for the various public bodies. Corporate governance in Jamaican public bodies has benefited from the general process of public-sector modernisation. The legislative and policy frameworks have seen improvements. The process has also benefited from a national consensus involving government (political administration), private sector, trade unions and civil society as it relates to the appointment of persons as members of boards.

As the prime minister, his ministers, and collectively, the Cabinet, prepare to appoint boards of the public bodies I trust that they will adhere to the fundamental principles of effective corporate governance enshrined in the Government of Jamaica (GOJ) document titled Corporate Governance Frame-work for Public Bodies in Jamaica (CGF). This is particularly important for two reasons. First, the prime minister's stress on accountability and that corruption will not be tolerated in his administration. Second, the roles that boards of public bodies play in the execution of a government's mission and vision and the associated strategies, goals and objectives. .

The CGF has the benefit of having been piloted and approved by Cabinets of the Jamaica Labour Party (2011) and the People's National Party (Revision, 2012). It guides boards and the public bodies they oversee in facilitating compliance with the social, economic and regulatory imperatives of Jamaica, as well as guiding them on the governance framework within which they operate.

 

PRINCIPLES BREACHED

 

In my opinion, the actions by the then board of the National Housing Trust in the purchase of Outameni appears to have breached critical principles of effective corporate governance. Without rehashing the episode, the purchase led to outcry from many sectors, resignations by board members, the reconstitution of the board, and significant public debate on corporate governance issues and principles. While I cannot posit that there was a direct link, it is a fact that the chairman of the board was replaced a few months after the public discourse and quarrel. It is important that we learn from this example. Prime Minister Holness' emphases on setting and holding his ministers to performance targets, accountability in government, careful stewardship of public resources, and zero toleration of corruption are to be supported.

Chairpersons and members who are competent, professionally relevant, and characterised by integrity must be appointed to lead in the achievement and maintenance of these elements. They, in turn, must appreciate that they must be committed to these principles. While there will be the inevitable appointments of persons associated with the winning party, and this is okay, the persons who are eventually approved have to understand that their appointment is not for social prestige.

The boards, once composed, approved and having received their mandates, should be held to account in the same way that the prime minister is proposing that he and the Cabinet will be. Each board should be asked to develop key performance indicators (KPIs) that are related to those set for the ministry within which it is assigned, and its minister, and the organisation being supervised. These KPIs will be informed by the CGF's three-fold purpose statement, but critically, are related to their performance. It makes no sense that boards evaluate their CEOs and organisations, and do not institute processes to evaluate their own performance.

 

GENDER EQUALITY

 

In the appointment of boards, I wish to address one other issue. This has to do with gender equality. In 2016, there is no reason why Government should not and cannot be held directly accountable to honour national commitments to equality in gender representation. When this is raised we hear hackneyed expressions about the need for competence and quality people. No reasonable person would dispute this; however, the same standards apply to men as women in this regard. We need to respect the 30 per cent minimum representation, for either gender, when selections and appointments are being made. By the way, does this national commitment (30%) also apply to chairpersons? Gender equality is not the only issue in the matter of diversity. We also have to acknowledge our communities of the youth (and not just persons who look youthful), and the disabled, inter alia.

We are at a critical juncture in our nation's history. The prime minister has spoken admirably in committing himself and the Government to be accountable and transparent, and to operate with probity. I think that we owe it to our nation to request that he guides his ministers (and himself) to appoint boards to satisfy the standards of the Corporate Governance Framework, a policy statement that bears the imprimatur of administrations of both political parties. In so doing, I strongly believe that we will perform better in social and economic indices. If not, then the prime minister would only have spoken eloquently.

- Dameon A. Black is an educator and public affairs commentator. Email feedback at columns@gleanerjm.com or blackad48@gmail.com.