Sun | Oct 25, 2020

Editorial | Reviving confidence in integrity watchdogs

Published:Thursday | March 5, 2020 | 12:07 AM

The recent poll findings showing how little confidence Jamaicans have in them could not have escaped the Integrity Commission, which makes Greg Christie’s imminent assumption of the job as its executive director all the more important. That is assuming Mr Christie can bring to the job the same passion and energy he exhibited as contractor general.

But it is not only with the commission directly is there public disgruntlement. People clearly don’t trust policymakers and bureaucrats, with their control over state resources and avenues by which to enrich themselves. So, there is a demand for greater transparency with regard to assets accumulated by these groups.

It is important, in the face of these findings, that the officials at the head of the commission, and those who formulate the laws and policies that govern it, don’t become peeved over what they might perceive as the public’s unreasonable assessment. Rather, they should seek to understand the context of the message and seek, therefrom, to tweak their institutions into ones that Jamaicans can fully embrace.

According to the survey, conducted for the RJRGLEANER Group, a little more than a third (35 per cent) of Jamaicans have confidence in the Integrity Commission, the agency established two years ago, from three separate bodies, as the island’s major anti-corruption watchdog. Slightly more people (37 per cent) lacked confidence in the commission, while 28 per cent were unclear where they stood. Where there is no ambiguity is that a strong majority (61 per cent) wants the assets and liabilities filings of parliamentarians, senior civil servants and leaders of the security forces to be made public.

With regard to the absence of confidence in the Integrity Commission, it is not that the public believes that the four commissioners, or the heads of the agency’s various divisions, are corrupt or incompetent. Indeed, most Jamaicans, as does this newspaper, hold them to be highly intelligent and principled people.

There is, though, concern with the commission’s modus operandi, a sense that by instinct and training, the commissioners, who set the tone of the organisation, are circumspect in their actions and wary about testing the boundaries of their authority. That, perhaps, ought not to be unexpected, given that the commission is dominated by former judges (two of four members) and a senior public servant.

The impression they leave is of an unenergetic and listless agency constrained by bureaucracy, rather than one that’s aggressive and willing to take risks. It is a characterisation that gained currency with the commissioners’ uneasy relationship with its former director of corruption prosecutions, Dirk Harrison. This is likely to have been reinforced by the assumption that the commission may have been slow in sending to Parliament reports on its investigations, including a probe of the Petrojam scandal which, eight months ago, it indicated was complete and ready for perusal by its internal prosecutor. The perceived inertia doesn’t readily inspire confidence.

Assertive Christie

This conception of the Integrity Commission is in sharp contrast to how Jamaicans saw Mr Christie, in his seven years up to 2012, as contractor general. He was deemed a strong and decisive overseer, who discomfited politicians and public officials with his frequent, usually loud, declarations of which departments and agencies had failed to file reports within the prescribed period, and his readiness to undertake investigations on the award of contracts. It was largely in response to Mr Christie’s style that the new law forbids the Integrity Commission from announcing investigations until reports of them have been tabled in Parliament.

Mr Christie, as the commission’s executive director, won’t be its key policymaker. But he will be the critical bridge between the commissioners and the operational directors. Further, as the man in charge of the day-to-day affairs of the agency, and with several tasks falling directly within his jurisdiction, he will not be without influence. Moreover, he is likely to become the public face of the agency, with the ability to nudge the commissioners to greater activism.

Among his early undertakings must be to synthesise those elements of the current law that the commissioners say need changing, with the weaknesses identified by others, and agitate for their overhaul by Parliament. Included in these has to be the public’s call for reporting the net worth of legislators, senior public officials, and key people in the police and the army. Already, the summary filings of the prime minister and leader of the Opposition are published. Legislators, and others, should be willing to accommodate the same if they want to enjoy the influence they have over people’s lives.