Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Integrating integrity

Clarence Rambharat logo3

Donstan Bonn

Letís face it: private sector bribes corrupt the public sector. To reduce corruption the private and public sectors must be scrutinised but this is not something the current Integrity Commission (IC) can do. The country needs more than five individuals and 4,000 forms annually to shake off this reputation for corruption.

The irony is that even with the countryís growing reputation for corruption, the IC is notorious for commess. Thatís tragedy when you think about the ICís dual legal responsibility for oversight of persons in public life and private persons interfacing with public bodies.

The IC is better known for its lens into public offices. But it can also investigate private behaviour which may constitute criminal offences under the Prevention of Corruption Act (POCA). Through this non-exclusive power under POCA, the IC can reach into the private sector and private interests. A widening of that power and the review of POCA and the nature of the IC are needed.

This need to hold the private sector accountable is obvious. The biggest challenge to integrity in public life is its collision with corrupt or corrupting elements from the private sector. It is difficult to speak about integrity in public life without enforcing ethical behaviour amongst private interests. But to shift the culture and the way business is done, the IC needs help.

Reining in political party financing and requiring the registration of lobbyists are examples of how the private sector could be held accountable. Just recall the noise over the demonstration of an aircraft to the Police Service and the engagement of a supplier on a trial basis.

Before that a potential competitor apparently made a presentation to the Government on a similar offer.

Access to decision-makers is hit and miss and guaranteed success is dependent on who you know and proximity to party in power. Requiring anyone lobbying public officials to register their interests and financial and other contributions is a step towards creating transparency in public sector deal-making.

Procurement and engagement on the buddy basis denies the country the economic value of genuine and competitive tendering. It also denies the country an opportunity to take the cost of kickbacks and grease-hand out of the bottom line. But more important than the financial rewards of integrity and ethics in procurement, accountability, transparency, fairness and access set the tone at the top for every government. The problem is that the tone does not always help private interests along.

Political parties which turn into governments are hamstrung because funding election battles means pawning the future economic agenda. After elections governments and selected private interests are indivisible on policy and procurement because of selfish but mutual interest in getting rich, staying rich and staying in power.

In that indivisibility, State-sector and independent gatekeepers should be the firewall between competing public and private interests. Unfortunately the firewall is porous and inadequate as gatekeepers trip up on basic elements of governance. In many cases mistakes are made by individuals who should know better.

Central to an integrity bodyís task is providing assurance that individuals are fit for purpose before appointment. And thereafter, that body should remain responsible for certifying continued fitness.

Despite a proliferation of academic certification, persons in public life, elected officials and board members in particular, are not necessarily trained for standing between the public interests and its potential collision with those private. Unpreparedness is not good for eyesight and problems arise because some do not have the knowledge of how the public sector works and how their roles differ from a similar role in the private sector.

Announcements are made and appointments sanctioned but there is never evidence of people being deemed fit and proper for public responsibility. Talent, potential and promise are not sufficient evidence of preparedness to discharge onerous responsibilities. It is a matter an integrity body has to fix.

In a revised IC or integrity body, the cloak and dagger approach to enforcing ethical behaviour must be abandoned. Any integrity body must be intent on shaping the way integrity and ethics in public life is embedded in the society. It must confront the fact that some persons in public life lack the knowledge of or understanding of the law; they fail to understand risk and do not appreciate the risks posed by acting without training, knowledge or basic understanding. Itís bad enough that they are unprepared for the position; itís horrible that they remain that way.

There are also some technical elements in reconsidering the IC and POCA. The countryís set-up for integrity and ethics must include a responsibility for banks to report unusual transactions between private and public interests to an integrity body. It must also require public sector bidding documents to include an enforceable declaration regarding matters of lobbying, conflict of interest, facilitation payments, gifts and political and charitable donations linked to persons in public life.

This declaration must be lodged with and enforced by the integrity body instead of the procuring body. And that declaration must cover the broad range: fete and other tickets; alcohol; personal invitations and indulgences; donations to ministries and constituencies, including emergency assistance and relief; and Christmas gifts and hampers to constituents and other persons.

The work of any integrity body must be forward-looking. It is a step towards setting standards and cultivating a culture of ethics in public life. The current IC looks backwards for behaviours we already know do not exist as widely as it should. Itís so ironic that its history of commess, integrity and ethical behaviour is still a challenge for the Integrity Commission itself.

* Clarence Rambharat is an

attorney and university lecturer.