Tue | Feb 18, 2020

Editorial | New standards for government boards

Published:Friday | December 7, 2018 | 12:00 AM


The execration of governance at Petrojam, delivered by Pamela Monroe Ellis in her report on the management of the oil refinery, is but the latest highlighting of the need for new approaches to how boards and managers of public bodies are appointed to ensure integrity and accountability.

For while Petrojam is the agency in the spotlight, and may represent the apex of brazenness in the mishandling of taxpayers' money, it is unlikely to be the only one in the public sector - as recent revelations about other institutions that were part of the portfolio of former energy and technology minister, Andrew Wheatley, suggested - where probity and managerial decency have collapsed.

There are, perhaps, many explanations for what happened at Petrojam, including, some will insist, Jamaica's chronic problem of, and tolerance for, corruption. The proposed solutions will be myriad.

Some of the answers, however, are not overly complex, nor do they require much time to implement. They demand only political will. Arrangements for choosing members of public-sector boards are among the easier issues, for which there is already emerging bipartisan consensus.


What led to the fiasco?


There are two primary reasons that lead, ultimately, to fiascos. One is that appointing persons to boards of public bodies is not solely, or, often, firstly, about an individual's competence to the job. Rather, board appointments have become part of the spoils of political office, to be distributed to party supporters, in part, as economic feeding troughs, or social prestige.

Even when appointments are free of these most perverse considerations, governments, as Nigel Clarke, the finance minister, observed in June, face significant constraints in finding the best talent. They generally want to appoint known supporters on the presumption that they will faithfully pursue the policies of the administration of the day.

But as Dr Clarke noted in June, there are around 190 public bodies in Jamaica, each with between seven and 17 directors. "So, incoming administrations can struggle to adequately fill over 2,000 board positions on a change of government."

He has proposed creating a database of prospective board members, based on competency profiles, and having performance indices against which persons are measured once they have been appointed to service. He also suggested declaring minimum placement for women and "independents", which we take to mean persons who are not known to be political, and the staggering of appointments so that all members would not have to vacate their seats on a change of government or the appointment of a new minister.


Similar ideas


Some of these ideas are similar to ones advocated by the opposition leader, Peter Phillips. They, broadly, have the support of this newspaper. However, we are yet to see the specific mechanism for populating the proposed database and are unclear on the precise roles civil-society organisations, individuals, or even political parties will be able to play in this venture, and how.

As we said previously, this newspaper believes that board openings should also be advertised, allowing persons who believe they are qualified to offer themselves for positions and for others to propose them. Further, board appointees, and especially chairmen, should, as Dr Phillips suggested, not only receive letters/instruments of appointment, but should be made to sign specific contracts, holding them to accountability and good conduct.

Indeed, the obligations of members of the boards of public bodies should be equal to the governors of private-sector companies. Further, with respect to some specified public bodies, governors should be required to undergo fit-and-proper tests, similar to what is demanded of persons who work in the financial-services companies and members of their boards.