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EDITORIAL - The Shirley Committee can work

Published:Monday | April 30, 2012 | 12:00 AM

We understand the concerns of the Opposition, as well as the disquiet of the Office of the Contractor General (OCG), over the Government's establishment of a committee to help provide oversight to contracts being entered into by its agencies.

There are fears that this move could be a short route to disbanding or making irrelevant the OCG, which has been fearlessly and ably led over the past seven years by Mr Greg Christie. The tone - and some would say, confrontational posture - of Dr Omar Davies, the works minister, when he named the committee in Parliament last week would have contributed to such an impression.

While it would be a shame, and grave mistake, if that were to be the intent of the Simpson Miller administration, we are confident that the three eminent individuals who comprise the committee - Professor Gordon Shirley, Mr R. 'Danny' Williams and Mr Everton McDonald - would not knowingly lend their names and enviable reputations to such a Machiavellian scheme.

Indeed, the current circumspection notwithstanding, we believe there is the potential, if properly utilised, for this committee to enhance the transparency and outcomes of government procurement negotiations and reduce the cause of conflicts between the OCG and public officials.

Moreover, as it now stands, the presence of the Shirley Committee does not in any way weaken the legal and independent authority of the OCG to review or investigate the award of contracts. Nor can we conceive of Mr Christie being intimidated by it.

If we understand Dr Davies' explanation for the committee's establishment, it is to provide the Government with a sense of assurance that it is doing the right thing, especially when entering large, sole-sourcing or direct negotiation agreements, such as those planned for the expansion of the Kingston trans-shipment terminal and the extension of the north-south leg of Highway 2000.

These and other schemes that have bypassed the route of public tender have, in the past, been a source of conflict between Mr Christie and Jamaican administrations - past and present.

Greater transparency

Mr Christie's concern is understandable and legitimate. For the fact and perception of corruption in Jamaica is great. Last year, a study of attitudes in Latin America and the Caribbean revealed that more than 80 per cent of Jamaicans perceive the country's public officials to be corrupt. It was, in part, to battle the fact of corruption that Mr Christie's office was established nearly three decades ago.

Mr Christie, therefore, prefers contracts to be open to public tender, which affords greater transparency. So do we. This newspaper, however, concedes Dr Davies' point that there are times when opportunities arise that speed is essential, and the public tender process is not the most efficacious. The risk in such circumstances is that in the absence of public scrutiny, public officials may be tempted to cut corners, or do things to their own benefit, or find themselves outmanoeuvred by the private interests with whom they negotiate.

A committee like Mr Shirley's, if it works, can help to lessen such dangers, while ensuring public officials extract greater value from deals. At the same time, nothing can stop Mr Christie's office, in accordance with the law, from investigating a contract that has been entered into under the oversight of the Shirley Committee. Except that it should be able to survive the OCG's scrutiny.

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