The government will be re-examining the use of lie detector testing within larger government agencies, Presi-dent Bharrat Jagdeo revealed yesterday, admitting that it runs the risk of abuse.
“You may see some changes because I raised this as a concern of mine at the cabinet meeting that we had,” Jagdeo said, noting that “If you over-rely on it [polygraph testing] and you abuse it and you don’t apply it in the right circumstances, after some time it loses its effectiveness.” He made the announcement yesterday afternoon at a press conference at the Office of the President, where he joked that he was worried that some agencies might not have any workers after the tests.
The decision to relook at the polygraph testing regime comes amid the refusal by some employees of the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) to undergo polygraph tests on the basis of what they have described as an inappropriate line of questioning on issues outside their job descriptions. The Guyana Public Service Union (GPSU) has condemned the testing.
Officers of the Customs Anti-Narcotics Unit (CANU) and the Police Narcotics Branch have been subject to polygraph tests, aimed at rooting out corruption.
Jagdeo said while he had been a vocal advocate of the extending of the testing from CANU to other agencies, as it is “a useful tool,” it is more effective within controlled circumstances and within smaller agencies, like CANU which was tested.
He explained that there will be problems using polygraph testing within larger agencies, with hundreds or thousands of employees, unless persons are identified for testing as a result of active investigations. “With CANU, you did it with everyone so it is not perceived as unfair because you polygraph every member of the unit; the same with the Police Narcotics Branch,” he said. “But if you handpick people from an agency-let’s say 15-then what criteria do you use?”
Jagdeo added that even if some people from the random sample fail, there might be five hundred others in the agency just as corrupt. He noted that often corruption goes up through an agency and people are needed at high levels to sanction what is taking place on the ground. “This is why I spoke to the cabinet about this and I said we have to be very careful about doing this in the revenue agency excepting in special circumstances, where you may be pursuing an investigation,” he said, “Because if you do it, for it to be fair, everyone should be polygraphed and its impossible to polygraph five hundred, six hundred people.”
Meanwhile, Commissioner General of the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA), Khurshid Sattaur said he is open to polygraph testing if called upon to do so, declaring that “even I am not exempt” from the process which started a few days ago.
Sattaur, who supports polygraph testing at GRA as a means of rooting out corruption, reaffirmed his position on the issue yesterday even as the GPSU condemned it as an unauthorized procedure, and several employees have rejected it.
Refusals to be tested have reportedly been triggered by the line of questioning, which some employees have complained “borders on inappropriateness” and falls outside of their portfolios.
General Secretary of the GPSU, Chandrawattie Persaud said yesterday that the questions being posed during the interviews raises serious doubts about the aim of the process, as articulated by the employees who have since refused to be tested. She said that the union is deeply concerned, and is closely monitoring the situation because public servants are affected.
Persaud, speaking with Stabroek News yesterday, said that information reaching the union has suggested that some of the questions raised at the polygraph interviews addressed sexual behaviour and political affiliation.
The General Secretary asserted that the union categorically rejects polygraph testing in the public service as being unacceptable and that it views the procedure as an imposition on officers. She emphasized that the union had voiced its disapproval of such testing in the past when it was initially introduced at CANU, and that its objections to the procedure have not changed.
The union has firmly communicated its position to Sattaur in writing, but is yet to receive a favourable response. In the interim, Persaud said that the union is asking members to reject the testing and to stand firm on their positions, adding that a circular had been issued to this effect.
Further, she disclosed that employees are also acting in their own interests and have retained the services of legal counsel. Persaud noted that if any disciplinary action is to be taken against the staff for declining the polygraph tests, legal counsel would advise them of a way forward.
Tests open to everyone
Sattaur told Stabroek News yesterday that the decision to polygraph GRA workers was not his, but emphasized his avid support for the process. He said that the GRA has a governing board which makes such decisions and according to him, they can call on him to take the test since it is open to everyone.
If called upon, Sattaur said, he would submit himself. He said that GPSU continues to write him when “I am not the person they need to write” and noted that while he has certain responsibilities and manages revenue collection, he also answers to a higher authority.
He continued that the polygraph testing process has started, adding that it is still ongoing. Sattaur would not elaborate on this, but he suggested that some persons are complying while others are not.
On the issue of staff refusing to take the test, he said, that the decision as to what happens to them would have to be made at a higher level and not by him. However, he pointed out that there is no clear position as to whether persons are to be disciplined for rejecting the tests.
Sattaur, in an interview with this newspaper last week, had commented that the polygraph tests will ensure that the integrity of officers is at the highest level, in addition to addressing the whole issue of public perception and GRA. He added that the tests also offer a high level of transparency and accountability in the system.
He also noted that polygraph testing is critical in the revenue body to change public perception and root out corrupt officers, and insisted that the testing must extend into the business community where “people bribing all the time to avoid taxes”.
Stabroek News has been reliably informed that the GRA had selected a batch of employees for polygraph testing last month, but decided against the tests following strong disapproval and a quick reaction from the union. However, the revenue body pressed ahead with the testing and wrote another batch of employees, among them several senior staff.
The second batch of staff went in for briefings on the testing and returned for the actual polygraphs on Saturday last, but ended up refusing after being questioned. The testing was expected to continue on Sunday and throughout this week.
A source close to a senior staff member, who was selected for testing, said that the employee is deeply hurt by the selection. The source related that the person had been in the service of the GRA for over a decade and has aided in weeding out corruption.