Mon | Sep 27, 2021

Editorial | Pay information czar more … now

Published:Sunday | July 25, 2021 | 12:09 AM

Nigel Clarke’s promise of a major bumping up of public-sector salaries notwithstanding, we can’t but be sympathetic to the Opposition’s insistence on a much bigger salary package for the proposed information commissioner from the inception of the office rather than waiting until the finance minister is able to implement his promised pay reforms.

First, there is no guarantee that, as Minster Clarke hopes will happen, the Government will have the new compensation regime in place during the next fiscal year, or any time close thereto. Much will depend on the strength of economic recovery from recession caused by the pandemic and what proportion of gross domestic product (GDP) Jamaica, and its international partners, will comfortably have as the public sector wage bill. When Jamaica had a formal oversight agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), it was working towards a wage bill of no more than nine per cent of GDP.

The information commissioner is the linchpin of the Data Protection Act, which was passed by Parliament last year but which the Government is now working to bring in force. Under that law, companies, self-employed professionals, and other individuals who collect data on their clients will be under strict legal obligation to account for, and to properly protect, that information. The information commissioner will set the rules for how this information is to be stored, who can and cannot access it, and in some instances, to impose huge penalties on firms that flout the regime. In other words, the information commissioner will be a powerful job with quasi-judicial authority.

But in determining where that post should fall on the Government’s pay scale, the administration pegged the post to that of a chief technical director (CTD), which usually is the number two or three slot in a ministry, after the permanent secretary. Based on the resolution the Science and Technology Minister, Daryl Vaz, brought to Parliament last Tuesday, the current salary for the CTD post is between J$5.7 million and J$6.7 million. That is what the information commissioner would be paid.

COMMAND FAR MORE

Julian Robinson, the shadow finance minister, who has a background in technology and previously shadowed that portfolio, argued that the job should command far more. The proposed salary, he said, potentially opened an information commissioner to being compromised.

But even before you get there, there is the matter of whether it’s competitive enough to attract the best talent. Or as Mr Robinson framed it, the information commissioner “is someone who will take on the Government, acting on behalf of citizens, and take on large private interests”. “At this level (of salary), you are not going to attract the kind of person you want,” he said.

You might. But it won’t be easy. People who are able in the digital information field, are skilled in high-level management, can comfortably sit across the table from private sector bosses, and won’t be intimidated by ministerial authority aren’t a dime a dozen. Such talent comes at a price. Usually, a high one.

We agree that an individual’s salary doesn’t guarantee his or her integrity. However, in a situation where a public official has the power to refer a company to court for breaches of the act, where that firm could be “liable to a fine not exceeding four per cent of the annual gross worldwide turnover”, we would feel better if that official’s remuneration placed him or her in a position to better resist the blandishments of corporations.

CIVIL SERVICE SALARIES

Mr Robinson talked of linking the information commissioner’s salary to that of judges, which would mean, at current rates, a salary of between J$9.4 million and J$11.6 million (which is less than what was proposed by an independent review commission). But there was unease with that idea. Minister Clarke argued that the post of the information commissioner, unlike judges, fell squarely in the public service, against which the post was benchmarked. The role, in the circumstance, was roughly equivalent to that of a chief technical director in the civil service.

The problem, he argued, was not with the office against which the information commissioner’s job was measured, but civil service salaries, generally. The solution, therefore, was public-sector wages, which then meant that the information commissioner’s pay would rise when that happened. The issue, though, is that recruiting the information commissioner is now – at a stated salary scale. The public sector wage overhaul is down the road.

Then there are the contortions over where the information commissioner falls in the public sector. It is more than a bit surprising that it is lumped with the civil service. For while the office will operate with oversight from a data-protection oversight committee, the commissioner, under the law, “shall act independently in the discharge of the functions of the commissioner and shall not be subject to the direction or control of any person or other entity”.

Its structure, on the face of it, is roughly analogous to commissions of Parliament, whose commissioners’ salaries are typically linked to those of judges. Therefore, if they didn’t want to directly tie the information commissioner’s remuneration to that of a judge, they might have linked it to, perhaps, the commissioner for the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM), which investigates complaints against misbehaving police officers. As is the case with the INDECOM commissioner, the tenure of the information commissioner should be seven years, placing it beyond the life of a political administration, thereby giving the commissioner greater security.