Opinion: Making government agencies accountable and responsible Loop Cayman Islands

The content originally appeared on: Cayman Compass

Readers are asked to note that Op-eds do not necessarily reflect the opinions or beliefs of Loop Cayman.

by ‘Concerned Citizen’

When a member of the public asks a government agency why a task hasn’t been completed or why they can’t get something addressed, it is sometimes the case that the answer given to the member of the public is that it is not that agency’s responsibility, but that of another department. However, when the other government department is contacted, they refer the customer to the previous agency who said it was not their responsibility. To many members of the public (and in my view), this back-and-forth is not only a waste of time but also indicates that some agencies and their management may be skirting their responsibilities or dodging accountability.

Some problems rooted in legislation

One of the reasons for the confusion is that a single matter is often covered by different sets of legislation. One example of this is the handling of derelict vehicles, which the police have authority to deal with under the Traffic Act, the Department of Environmental Health has authority to deal with under the Litter Act and the National Roads Authority has authority to deal with under the Roads Act.

Without being lawyers themselves or knowing where to look, most members of the public will not understand the fine details or the differences between the laws or Acts and, accordingly, what should be their first or next step. The outcome is unfortunate in that, instead of getting answers, they are spun around in circles and it may take many years before they can get anything done.

Issues also rooted in management

Even if some people understand the legislation or know where to look or who to ask, it is sometimes the case that the management or CEO of the relevant agency has committed himself or herself to such a great extent to a particular course of action linked to, or influenced by, a political or personal interest, that the outcome is that the CEO completes personal objectives, but leaves concerns of members of the public largely unaddressed.

Another glaring issue with management is the level of competence to execute functions. This has become a concern over the years as some people have been appointed to senior positions based on the number of years in a post or their political connections rather than ensuring that they have the relevant competencies to do the job, in particular, the important skill of managing human capital.

In relation to the management of human capital, the bottom line, of course, is that employees in a government agency may not be happy at work if they are not spoken to correctly, not trained adequately or little or no interest is shown by management in their progression or upward mobility. This may lead to poor morale across the agency, resulting in a “don’t care” attitude towards the workplace and work product. When this attitude is present in an organisation, it evolves over time into bad customer service, poor performance and low quality products.

“Resource” issues

Outside management competencies, one excuse that is frequently put forward by management is a “lack of resources” or “not having the budget” to get things done.

From experience, in many cases, it turns out be true that the relevant agency is underfunded or does not have the right tools to do its job. For example, look at the DEH. If the DEH had more grab trucks, then, after terrible storms which leave extensive damage, a greater number of grab trucks could lead to debris and other items being removed quicker. While this is just a hypothetical example, it demonstrates how the simple provision of more equipment could lead to better results for the public (note that I am not complaining about DEH- I am just using them to illustrate a point).

In other cases, the lack of resources arises because the CEO of the relevant agency fails to ask for what he or she needs for the agency’s operations at the time that the government is agreeing on the overall budget and appropriations.

Unfortunately, this failure occurs because the relevant CEO simply does not plan adequately or, alternatively, doesn’t believe that the agency will be allocated more than they received in the previous year. (From my conversations with people working with government agencies, this lack of confidence and disbelief is very real after years of CEOs making requests to cover the relevant agency’s operations and having important requests rejected by those controlling policy and the financial purse. They simply get “tired” of asking.)

People can influence and politicians can change laws

Given these known failures, politicians have an opportunity now to change laws or Acts to make some things happen.

For example, boards of directors of agencies could be given the power to appoint and remove any member of staff of the relevant agency who is not performing (currently, boards only have authority to appoint and remove CEOs, not staff below CEOs). Without this power, boards are at the mercy of CEOs- who may, in fact, not be interested in the success of the organization, but the progress of members of his or her “click” within the organization, thereby promoting friends and supporters rather than those who are competent to do the job and support the organization and the country’s goals.

Of course, the public also plays a role and can protest or file complaints regarding the relevant agency which is not getting things done. Such complaints normally trigger management to publicly address issues, which shows that the public has some power to encourage accountability even though not being able to enforce it.