COLUMN – This tax and spend culture!
Most Barbadians born in the last 50 years grew up believing Barbados was the best managed country in the English-speaking Caribbean. I certainly held this view, having repeatedly heard the point being made not only by domestic Government officials, private sector leaders and other influencers of public opinion, but also representatives of foreign governments and international agencies.
As a young journalist travelling around the region and writing about wastage, corruption –– “bobol” they call it in some places –– and other public administration challenges that plagued some countries, I would proudly say to myself and occasionally to others: “Thank God, at least we don’t have to contend with those problems in Barbados!”
By and large, it was a correct assumption. Generally speaking, Barbados was well managed or, at least, it appeared to be so. Public services worked, comparable with the standard of some developed countries, and were delivered to the general satisfaction of citizens. Complaints were few and far between.
Regrettably, I can no longer make that boast today. Some of the issues I wrote about elsewhere in the region 20 to 30 years ago are now evident here.
The shocking tale of wastage and other inefficiencies in Government, which are detailed year after year in the Auditor General’s Report, challenges the long-standing assumption of Barbados as a well-managed country. It is an issue which should be of concern to every taxpaying citizen, especially in a context where increasingly scarce resources have to meet expanding public needs. The situation requires the steadfast pursuit and attainment of a high level of efficiency.
Barbadians are among the most heavily taxed citizens in the region, but it seems that in so many areas we are not getting value for money. Compared with 20 years ago, public services have noticeably deteriorated; yet the tax burden on the individual citizen keeps rising. A tax and spend culture seems to have taken hold within Government where the average citizen is viewed by policymakers as a readily available source of financing to fix problems whenever they arise.
What is quite clear is that if Government places more emphasis on eliminating a lot of the wastage and inefficiencies which are highlighted annually by the Auditor General, savings that would be realized, could make a significant contribution towards containing costs and helping to reduce the high fiscal deficit.
Despite drawing vexing issues to the attention of Government year after year, it seems that most of what the Auditor General has to say falls on deaf ears. Such is the state of accountability within Government –– never mind the Democratic Labour Party’s 2013 election campaign commitment to give priority to improving accountability as a part of a new framework for promoting good governance.
“I must draw to Parliament’s attention a glaring shortcoming in the accountability process in Government,” said the Auditor General in his 2014 report recently tabled in Parliament. “For many years the office has been highlighting a number of issues of lack of compliance with statutory requirements by state agencies in its annual reports and through other correspondence.
“However in a number of cases there is little evidence that relevant corrective action has been taken. In short, personnel in these agencies are not being held to account for their actions or lack thereof. This can only lead to a further deterioration in standards of good governance in the public service,” the Auditor General warned.
The power of the Auditor General, an independent office established by the Constitution, is specific but limited. The purpose of the office, as spelt out in Section 113 of the Constitution, is to carry out audits of the various arms of Government and submit the findings in an annual report delivered to the Speaker of the House of Assembly.
The fact that this is done every year and highlights genuine issues is confirmation that the Auditor General is doing an admirable job. However, to ensure accountability, what is required is a follow-up action to address the issues highlighted, and to take, if necessary, disciplinary action against persons who may have breached certain rules and procedures. The Auditor General does not have such powers.
The lack of effective follow-up action, which the Auditor General drew attention to in his latest report, is confirmation that accountability within Government has virtually fallen down. Where there is lax accountability, there is always a real possibility of anarchy stepping in. Perhaps we are already seeing signs in some sections of the public service which functions as if it is a law unto itself.
Since the Auditor General reports to Parliament, the onus should be on Parliament, as the highest court in the land, to take action on the findings. Parliament is also the ideal institution because it is responsible, in the first place, for approving money spent by Government every year. About three to four months following the publication of the Auditor General’s Report, there should be a follow-up report outlining specific actions taken to address the various issues which were raised.
Maybe, at the level of Government, the time has come for the establishment of a special task force to conduct a thorough review of existing systems in relation to public expenditure, using the Auditor General’s Report as the launch pad to begin the investigation. Given a clearly defined mandate to identify weaknesses and recommend effective improvements, such a task force could make a significant contribution to improving public sector efficiency once the will exists at the leadership level to embrace and introduce the recommendations.
Instead of relying solely on the Auditor General’s Report to find out what has gone wrong, Barbados could do with at least one major think tank, made up of top professionals and thinkers, to monitor the performance of Government and through the publication of discussion papers and special reports, guide a national discussion on what needs to be done.
Think tanks are vibrant civil society institutions which exist in most developed countries. Funded by the private sector, political interests and philanthropic individuals, they serve as an intellectual centre producing ideas which often are subsequently incorporated into public policy. In fact, think tank officials often end up in Government implementing the ideas they helped to produce. To enhance democracy and support more effective governance, Barbados could do with one or two think tanks.
Barbados is capable of doing much better, which we must. We sell ourselves short when we limit ourselves by myopic thinking or by becoming so content with past achievements that we lose sight of new opportunities for greatness which beckon on the horizon.
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and journalist. Email: email@example.com)