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SHANTAL MUNRO-KNIGHT: Govt must do better


SHANTAL MUNRO-KNIGHT: Govt must do better

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I  do not know how many of you attended the recent public lecture on relevance of the Auditor General’s  office to the Barbadian society or read the reports on the speech given by the Auditor General Leigh Trotman. As has become customary in presentations from this office, Mr Trotman’s presentation highlighted an unflattering picture of the state of Government’s accounts.   

The Auditor General suggested that because of failures within the process, the true state of Government’s indebtedness could not be accurately ascertained. To be honest, I was not too alarmed by this statement. I was actually thinking that this might be a good thing. Let’s not rush to have too much bad news; perhaps in this case oblivion is sweet bliss. 

What intrigued me about the presentation was the suggestion by the Auditor General that what would be extremely useful was if annual reports could be more performance- and activity- based, highlighting what departments and agencies were supposed to do against what they actually did for the financial period.

My first reaction was  to say, “Hold on. Is the suggestion that this is not done currently? If not, how do Government departments account for performance? Whose job is it to examine the extent to which departments are meeting targets (assuming that they are targets)? And whose job is it to put measures in place to correct this? More importantly, how does the public know who is supposed to report to us? Is it the permanent secretary? The minister? A special committee? The Opposition?” 

It is like double jeopardy – not only are Government’s departments not reporting on their finances, we also do not know if they are doing the jobs they are supposed to. Just because people are turning up to work every day does not mean that they are doing anything meaningful or actually producing. As a public we are accepting of the suggestion that things are moving and happening because of the appearance of busyness.  We know some people are going to work every day. If we are lucky someone will answer the phone when we call; if we show up for a service seven out ten times if we are lucky again we will get our request dealt with. We mumble and grumble sometimes but certainly it would appear that we are not too concerned that we are continually asked to fund a Public Service that apparently has no interest in being accountable for how they spend our money and what they spend it doing.

We are continually called upon to pay higher taxes, to contribute more and – if you listen to some policymakers – we are chastised as being ungrateful when we complain. But we cannot get a simple annual report to say if X  Government department has actually done what it is supposed to. Oh wait, I am sorry, I forgot we get to vote every five years in a politically partisan context in which attaining Government is less about performance and more about personality. But nevertheless that is the source of all public accountability. 

Worldwide governments are grappling with new measures of performance based accountability whether they are introducing it through budget systems or other reporting measures. In the context of scare resources governments are realising that they must ensure the public receives best value for money. Somehow in Barbados we seem to have adopted a different mantra – the public gives more for whatever we give them – and we the public better be happy with that.

I have written continually about the issue of public accountability and those who read my articles are perhaps saying, “There she goes again on this same rant”. I hold my hand high and say I am unashamedly guilty. It is this issue more than any other which I believe defines the maturity of our democracy. It is this more than the expulsion of Maria Agard which threatens our democracy. If I had my way I would rename each and every post in the Public Service – everyone would be officially called a PS (public servant). The only distinction would be whether you would be public servant 1, 2, 3 or 4. A redundancy, some would say, but perhaps essential so that there is a continual reminder of the core purpose and function. Then again, perhaps the question is, do we want public servants or are we happy with the present hierarchy? Perhaps, again, oblivion provides sweet bliss.

Shantal Munro-Knight is a development specialist and executive coordinator at the Caribbean Policy Development Centre. Email [email protected]