Thu | Aug 13, 2020

Editorial | Get state board regulations done

Published:Tuesday | July 28, 2020 | 12:19 AM

There is, it seems to this newspaper, little disagreement between the Government and the Opposition over proposed regulations for the appointment of boards for public bodies. A bit of flexibility from either side should, therefore, make their passage a relatively simple issue when the matter next arises in the House.

The regulations, it is recalled, were previously approved late last year. They are back before legislators because of a lack of action by the Senate, which caused the process to time-out. Twice recently, the absence of a quorum in the House frustrated the effort by Dr Nigel Clarke, the finance and public service minister, to push them through. If he hasn’t yet done so, perhaps Dr Clarke should have a quiet word with his opposition counterpart, Mark Golding, on resolving the minor areas of tension that exist among their colleagues.

Jamaicans agree that there is real mischief that demands rules. There are more than 150 government-owned companies and other public bodies, which, annually, spend nearly half a trillion Jamaican dollars of taxpayers’ money. These institutions need approximately 2,000 people to sit on their boards, many of whom – fiduciary responsibilities apart – should have specialist knowledge because of the organisations they serve.

In a small country, with a shortage of skills, finding sufficient qualified people is not easy. The problem is complicated by the penchant of ministers to fill boards with people whose political allegiances are more important than their competence. The deficit in the quality of board is exacerbated by the fact that many competent people decline invitations to be governors of public bodies for fear of suffering a partisan taint. Among the consequences of this mix of ambivalence and the politicisation of boards are weak oversight and the inefficiency and corruption that characterise many state institutions.

CLEAR AND TRANSPARENT CRITERIA

In this regard, establishing clear and transparent criteria by which prospective board members are determined, and appointed, as is contemplated by the regulations, makes sense. Indeed, what is on the table is not broadly dissimilar from ideas offered by the Opposition Leader, Peter Phillips.

Dr Clarke’s proposed regulations would establish a database of prospective board members to which individuals could apply to be a part or otherwise proposed. This would allow ministers to match the knowledge and skills of potential board members with the requirements of the institutions. Further, people being considered for seats on the boards of finance-related or strategic companies would have to undergo fit-and-proper tests.

All of this is sensible, as is the recommendation that at the reconstitution of boards, such as a change of government or of a minister, at least a third of the former members be retained. We support the idea, too, that at least 30 per cent of the members should always be female or male, thereby preventing a gender balance that is overly skewed to either sex. Additionally, the logic of excluding members of the House as well as municipal councillors from these boards, is unassailable. It removes the likelihood of conflict of interest or the migration of partisan political considerations into the affairs of these institutions.

In this respect, we are wholly in sympathy with the position of the Opposition that persons who declare their intention to contest political office, and are engaged in campaigns thereto, should resign from board positions to remove any perception of conflict of interest or of access to state resources for their campaigns.

MERIT IN OPPOSITION’S VIEW

There is merit, too, in the Opposition’s view that members of the Senate, in Jamaica’s context, should be excluded from the boards of public bodies. It was contemplated that as a reflective body, the Senate would be above the most partisan of the political fray. It, unfortunately, hasn’t, in recent decades, worked that way. Limiting to four the number of senators who might sit on these boards seems to be a partial recognition of this concern. But the figure, on the face of it, appears arbitrary.

We would contemplate the appointment of senators if they were ‘independent’ members of the chamber, under the arrangement previously employed by the political parties, in the absence of a formal constitutional mechanism for this purpose. That, though, is not the current circumstance.

In the circumstances, given the congruence of the Government and Opposition on the issues, it should require only a few minutes for any adjustment to be made and for the regulations to receive approval.