Editorial | Get a strong ODPEM boss
Whatever may have prompted Leslie Harrow’s exit from the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM), to return to a job at least three rungs lower at the Electoral Office of Jamaica (EOJ), the controversy over his departure provides an opportunity for a frank assessment of an agency that appears to have lost its confidence and prestige, if not its way.
In such situations, the person at the top usually sets the tone of the institution. In other words, leadership matters. In this regard, the urgency of the matter notwithstanding, the process for selecting a new director general of the ODPEM must be robust and transparent, and the selectee must be competent and confident.
But for the brief notice of his appointment last November, we suspect that very few Jamaicans had ever heard of Mr Harrow until this week when the press, including this newspaper, reported that he had resigned as head of the agency, having grown fed up with an overbearing parent ministry that constricted his independence of action. Even the ODPEM press releases, it was suggested, were being vetted by the local government ministry.
It was several hours after the publication of these reports, and after they were rejected by the local government minister, Desmond McKenzie, that Mr Harrow denied them. He, like McKenzie, insisted that his return to the EOJ – where, as manager for the eastern zone, he will report to one of the three assistant directors of election – had nothing to do with a disharmonious relationship with either the minister or officials at the ministry.
According to both men, Mr Harrow was seconded to the ODPEM for six months, at the end of which he asked to revert to his substantive position. It was probably nothing more than oversight that Minister McKenzie’s announcement last November of Mr Harrow’s appointment failed to mention that it was a secondment of limited duration, and gave the posting a sense of permanence.
“Mr Harrow brings to the leadership of the ODPEM over 23 years of service in the public sector, including over 18 in various strategic, logistical, and other organisational leadership capacities in the Electoral Office of Jamaica,” Mr McKenzie said. “I am confident that his skills and experience will serve the agency and the country well. He assumes office at a particularly busy time, as the ODPEM discharges its responsibilities in the midst of the current, intense weather systems. I also wish to place on record my appreciation to the acting director general of the agency, Mr Richard Thompson, who will now revert to his substantive role as deputy director general.”
The larger and more fundamental issue, however, is the deepening sense among many people of the ODPEM’s receding authority in disaster management and mitigation issues since Ronald Jackson’s departure as director general in 2013, and the growing ascendancy of the ministerial assertion.
It is a tendency first publicly noted, and called out, by Mr Jackson’s predecessor, Barbara Carby, on the eve of Hurricane Matthew in 2016, when she expressed her concern that a press conference to outline Jamaica’s preparation for the storm was hogged by politicians, with little or no input from the ODPEM’s technocrats.
“There is nowhere in the world where a few hours before a disaster is expected to make an impact, you do not have the head of the disaster agency addressing the public,” Dr Carby complained. “The kinds of information that one would have expected from the press conference was also lacking. So when you have politicians taking over the role of and sidelining disaster management professionals, then they had better be prepared to do it properly.”
Further, over the past year, the ODPEM’s public involvement in managing Jamaica’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been very limited, notwithstanding that in March 2020, as the crisis loomed, the national disaster risk management council, of which the ODPEM director general is the secretary, was activated with much fanfare. While appreciating that in the circumstance of the pandemic the health authorities have the lead in the national response, there are several good, and practical, reasons forThe ODPEM to be, and to be seen to be, involved.
One is legal.
The Disaster Risk Management Act (DRMA), which provides the authority for many of the measures implemented by the Government to deal with the disease, is the same law that established the ODPEM and made it the primary coordinating agency for disaster response and mitigation. The law defines disaster not only in terms of catastrophes like hurricanes and earthquakes. It lists calamitous diseases among the occurrences that fall within that frame.
The more important reason, however, for strong and professionally centred leadership of the ODPEM is public trust. In times of disasters, people are more likely to perceive as credible and respond to, and act on, information from people in whom they have confidence. That information should not be weighed on the basis of political affiliation or some similar consideration. Which is not to suggest that politicians should have no role in disseminating information, or in offering assurance or comfort in such situations.
Unfortunately, though, distrust of politicians in Jamaica runs deep, a problem exacerbated by the still deeply tribalistic nature of our politics. The ODPEM and other agencies have transcended these divisions and won public trust by the professionalism with which they have attended their work. People like Dr Carby and Mr Jackson, and their predecessors, set the tone. This must not be lost. Who leads the ODPEM and similar bodies, therefore, matters. Such persons must be capable of, and willing to push back against interventionist ministers.
Minister McKenzie no doubt agrees.