Thu | Jul 20, 2017

Editorial | Financial secretary should explain, too

Published:Monday | July 17, 2017 | 7:00 AM

Audley Shaw bears the great bulk of the responsibility for the humongous telephone bill with which he burdened taxpayers, before giving them an ease by paying some of it and wheedling a rollback of a portion from his service provider. But it is not only the finance minister who has questions to answer relating to an obvious dereliction of responsibility. The civil servants around him also have some explaining to do.

When it emerged last week that Mr Shaw had, in the year to last March, racked up charges of J$8.334 million on his government-issued mobile telephone, finance ministry officials reported that he had no clue about the size of the bill until RJR reporters - as part of a broader story of what it costs taxpayers for ministers to use their mobile devices - requested the information under the Access to Information law. It was only then that he was told.

There are several things curious about this development, including Mr Shaw's apparent lack of curiosity.

 

A PERPLEXING MATTER

 

Overseeing the country's finances is obviously a complex matter that keeps Mr Shaw busy. But notwithstanding the fact that roaming charges, especially for data, accounted for a big portion of the bill, it is perplexing that over a whole year, a sense of accountability, if not natural inquisitiveness, didn't pique the finance minister's interest on what was being spent by the Government for his communication services.

But if Mr Shaw didn't know, officials in his ministry knew, or ought to have known.

Even if the minister didn't have a cap on his phone usage and didn't bother himself with the monthly costs, someone had to sign off on the bill. The top civil servant, and therefore the chief accounting - and accountable - officer in Mr Shaw's ministry, is the financial secretary. There have been two during the relevant period: Devon Rowe and his successor, Everton McFarlane.

Bear in mind the pattern of Mr Shaw's phone bills over the period: almost always very high. One month, the invoice was for more than J$400,000; another, it was more than J$1 million.

In the circumstance, we would have expected that the responsible officer would have brought the size of the bills, and the evidence thereof, to Mr Rowe's attention, for him to advise the minister of the situation. Unless the atmosphere in the ministry was toxic and Mr Shaw had created an environment of fear, he would - or ought to - have welcomed a warning about the extravagance of his phone usage.

After all, while the minister's phone bill is a minuscule part of a fraction of the seven per cent of GDP the Government is pledged to achieve on its fiscal account, it all adds up. When citizens are being asked to sacrifice, the finance minister should want to be seen to be leading by example.

Effective government depends not only on good policies, but on their competent execution. That is achieved by maintaining an efficient bureaucracy, which, at its best, helps to keep ministerial excesses in check. The public servants should say what went wrong at the finance ministry.

They ought to explain if it was the ministry - via its technocrats - as the holder of the account, or Mr Shaw himself who negotiated the J$1-million discount from the carrier. The rebate came in the context of this matter being a political scandal, and the finance minister, seemingly, being done a personal favour. Given Mr Shaw's ministerial powers to influence the viability of the service provider, that carries a whiff of a conflict of interest, which would have been best to avoid.