Martin Henry, Contributor
As Dirk Harrison comes to office as Jamaica's fifth contractor general, leader of government business in the House of Representatives, Phillip Paulwell, is assuring the country that the long-delayed campaign-finance bill is to be enacted into law by the end of the first half of the 2013-2014 parliamentary year. This was in response to a public query by National Integrity Action (NIA).
The timeline is firm enough to placate, vague enough to allow plenty of wiggle room, and short enough to suggest vigorous action.
The Jamaican Parliament is not noted for quick, vigorous action, except, of course, when the executive of Government wants action on a policy decision before it can be blocked. Only 10 of a slate of 32 pieces of legislation promised in the Throne Speech in May 2012 have, so far, been passed by a lazy, laid-back Parliament, with only a month to go before the end of the parliamentary year on March 31.
But Finance Minister Dr Peter Phillips, fighting to defend the economic reform programme crafted at the footstool of the IMF, last Sunday told PNP supporters, with their two feet in the party and contributions in the NHT like everybody else, that the Government was prepared to "carry the necessary legislation to Parliament" to legalise the extraction of $11.4 billion annually for four years from the NHT. As we would say, before spit on the ground at Cobbla, Manchester, was dry, the minister was in Parliament on Tuesday with the necessary amendment to the National Housing Trust Act.
It took 17 years for the Charter of Rights Bill, designed to enlarge and strengthen the constitutional rights and freedoms of the people, to make its tortuous way into law. It will take less than 17 days for the amendment to the NHT Act to become law, allowing the Government to extract funds from the contributions of Jamaican workers and employers towards 'housing solutions' when the country has need of some 400,000 of these, according to the chairman of the Trust.
Laws regulating the operations of political parties and contributions made to them are going to be necessary as we seek to eliminate corrupt payback to contributors from state resources when the party is in power.
So, as we await the arrival of the campaign finance bill, what needs to be done in the fight to reduce corruption? Dirk Harrison's first name means a dagger, but the man called a "gentle giant" by the governor general at his swearing-in last Monday, rather than fighting with dagger drawn, is far more likely to keep an iron fist clothed in a velvet glove.
My recommendations of what needs to be done may be taking coal to Newcastle; or, more to the Jamaican situation, as fresh and pointless commitments are given to remove the Queen as head of State, taking white sand to Negril or charcoal to Hellshire. The people in charge just need to tell me and the rest of Jamaica that these things are "in the pipeline" and will come out on an early and practical timeline as the leader of government business has done for the campaign-finance bill.
The legislative framework for pursuing corruption needs to be overhauled and strengthened. In the last 30 years, a number of specific anti-corruption agencies have been established, joining older anti-crime agencies. Their effectiveness and their needs for greater effectiveness must be thoroughly assessed.
caution on powers
The new contractor general, like his predecessor and the NIA, supports the establishment of a single anti-corruption body bringing together the Office of the Contractor General (OCG), the Corruption Prevention Commission, and the Integrity Commission and given prosecutorial powers.
I sound two notes of caution: Any such joining up and arming with prosecutorial powers must be contained by rigorous checks and balances from any abuse of consolidated, centralised power, one of the great fears of freedom and democracy. The much-criticised penchant of Mr Harrison's predecessor to cause public embarrassment by releasing to the public information on the actions of the OCG against public agencies and public servants, without any charges or equal opportunity of response, must not be armed with (dangerous) prosecutorial powers!
Which takes us directly to the next note of caution. The purpose of government is not simply to contain corruption. The purpose of government is to govern, to formulate and to carry out public policy in the public interest in a timely fashion.
Containing corruption, which is a drain on the public purse and on the capacity of the Government to deliver, must, nonetheless, not lead to the hobbling of public administration. We have to balance the thing. Onerous government procurement guidelines, for example, have become a clear hindrance to nimble response and the performance of the public service.
Fear of public exposure and embarrassment, without recourse to defence, even over actions taken in good faith or in a clearly deficient and inadequate operational environment, as is regularly the case in OCG and auditor general's reports, paralyses initiative by public servants and forces them into an operational mode where watching their back is more important than getting something done.
And the current legal battle between the OCG and the Government/Ministry of Transport, Works and Housing over the contracting and management of a number of development projects with an independent oversight body appointed underscores the need to balance the executive freedom of the Government and the powers of an oversight agency. The OCG Act needs to be interpreted by the Supreme Court and reviewed by the Parliament in light of the pluses and minuses of 27 years of operational experience.
Whenever dealing with the Government is complicated, frustrating, and stressful, citizens quite rationally seek short cuts to cut the hassle and are prepared to pay a parallel fee under the table. The lobby for tougher anti-corruption laws is rising in strength.
I want to make a plea in an area badly neglected in the fight against corruption: simplifying procedures for dealing with the Government by citizens at every point. People are making rational, cost-effective decisions to pay their way around obstructive systems, and the holders of public offices are more than willing to 'assist' in return for personal gain.
dangers of discretion
We must absolutely reduce discretionary authority in the fight against corruption. And we could begin with ministerial authority to grant waivers, some 200,000 of which now exist, and the IMF is insisting that they be cut. But let's not forget the discretionary 'authority' of a petty desk officer in the public service to determine appointment dates as he or she pleases with a massive built-in incentive to shorten wait time by greasing the palm.
Keep the rules clear and simple, and they must be applied by the book to every case, or else. It is not for nothing that the public service is called a bureaucracy. That's not always a dirty word; it just means a rule-bound organisation.
Permanent secretaries and other senior civil servants need stronger 'protection' from ministers. Ministers should be obliged by law to give all substantial directives in writing, and the PS legally obliged to note compliance or lawful objection, and lawful objection forwarded to a body like the Public Service Commission.
We must ensure that no single officer, whether of political or public service, is in charge of multiple steps in the system. Too much power. Too much fog. Having simplified procedures in straight-line fashion - do A, then B - each step should preferably be handled by a separate service provider.
Transparency must be built into transactions. Corruption loves the dark. Mechanisms for monitoring and review must be devised and operated, and the age of information technology just makes this so easy.
Having cleaned up the system, heads of agencies must be put on the line. Endemic corruption in Agency X must mean active collusion or dereliction of duty, leading to at least being fired and up to prison time.
This is Blyland. Jamaicans love and expect receiving corrupt favours as much as the providers love benefiting from providing them. It is when the other guy gets through and we don't that there is a problem with the system.
Reducing corruption further is going to require a major public education, public awareness, public understanding effort as the basis for public outrage. Corruption soaks the poor more. Corruption reduces the capacity of the Government to deliver. Corruption turns off investments. Corruption corrupts systems.
The costs of corruption to everyone are higher than the personal benefits which drive the process. The general citizenry will have to be taught to connect cause and effect, even while the other things are done. For this, the media and agencies of civil society have critical roles to play. There has to be an uprising of public outrage.
The law, old and new, must be rigorously policed. A handful of big-fish prosecutions will have a far greater salutary effect than a hundred street-level cases.
Wrapping around these recommended actions must be strong political commitment and leadership from the front to make the thing work. Resources for action have to be provided by the State. There has to be growing civil-society pressure.
And nothing encourages success like success. We need more clear, concrete, measurable results, especially of the sort that will capture the public imagination.
Martin Henry is a communication specialist and member of the NIA. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.