Prisons and the PSIP

On July 24th, just around the same time as the full extent of the prison escape from Lusignan was being determined, Finance Minister, Mr Winston Jordan was lamenting the poor execution of the Public Sector Investment Programme (PSIP).

“As at end June, less than 30 percent of the Public Sector Investment Programme was expended. What is the reason for this continued sloth in the implementation of the PSIP, at a time when it was touted as a boost to spending in the economy?” asked the Minister.

He was at the time addressing the Budget 2018 Preparation and Sensitisation Training Workshop. In his remarks to the Heads of Budget Agencies and other Senior Government officials,  Mr Jordan highlighted the fact that the 2017 Budget had been delivered since the 26th November, 2016 and yet, there were budget agencies in June still figuring out specifications of items to be purchased.

“We have awarded only 53 percent of the PSIP and expended a mere 28 percent on maintenance of infrastructure within the recurrent budget. While we happily and deservedly bask in the glow of improved Grade Six examination results, we need to wake up to the reality that less than 50 percent of our Grade Six children passed mathematics this year. Drugs and medical supplies are still in short supply at GPHC and in all of our regions,” the minister lamented.

The interrogative presented to the participants could well have been turned around and aimed at the Minister and his government. Why indeed up to June only 28% of the PSIP had been expended? It could hardly be the fault of those who were in attendance.

For decades, this country has been beset by the lack of execution capacity in discharging programmes small or big. Multilateral financial instructions like the IDB and the World Bank have butted their heads against this for many years. Significant sums in commitment fees and other areas have been lost over many years or have been returned because of this lack of capacity. The problem is well known and is chronic in this economy which continues to suffer a brain drain and calls into question whether vital parts of the economy can function barely adequately let alone optimally.

Having assumed office over two years now and having made sweeping changes in the permanent secretary line-up, the Minister and his government must explain why such a poor job has been done in the PSIP particularly considering that they had an entire year prior to this to prepare.

When the 2017 budget was passed in late 2016, it would have been clear to the permanent secretaries of each ministry, their ministers and other senior officials in the ministries that they faced an uphill task given that 2016 spending was hamstrung by the late presentation of the 2015 budget and the transition period this required. It needed to be impressed upon the permanent secretaries and their finance departments that there was going to be no letup in ensuring expenditure of the large resources budgeted in the PSIP. This was especially important in a lethargic economy where public spending could inject significant sums into the economy and provide jobs.

Why then is the Minister lamenting the poor expenditure close to the end of July? What was the mechanism employed by the Finance Ministry and the government to ensure efficient spending on the PSIP by the various ministries? Is it the Finance Secretary who should have been making fastidious checks to ensure that spending was keeping apace with expectations? Was it Cabinet, meeting weekly, which should have detected this anaemic spending and rallied the various ministries? Is there for instance a cabinet subcommittee or any other mechanism that cross-cuts the ministries and which has as its remit the removal of bottlenecks in the programme? What happened after the first quarter when official statistics are usually collated? Were warning bells rung and emergency meetings summoned at the level of the ministries? What happened after the end of the second quarter? Now that he has voiced his disappointment at what has been happening, Mr Jordan and his officers would be well-advised to level with the public on what is going wrong and what will be done to confront this so that the total spending by the end of this year  will gravitate closer to expectations. Without an explanation and a plan to push expenditure, the people will be at a loss as to whether this government is capable of executing the raft of plans it has enunciated.

On top of the poor PSIP execution, the public will take note of the monumental cost to the economy of failed governance. Saturday’s renewed prisoner unrest at Lusignan in which 16 inmates who engaged in ‘extreme disorder’ were shot must confirm beyond a shadow of a doubt that the country is in the midst of its worst prison crisis and that this has exposed the incapacities of the prison service, the Minister of Public Security and the government as a whole.  After two full years in office, the government’s failure to discern the seething discontent in the Camp Street prison will cost the economy dearly.

In Parliament on Thursday, the government notified that it would be seeking a whopping $756.1m for various buildings and other facilities for the prison system in the aftermath of the two uprisings by prisoners. This is unlikely to be the end. Who should be held accountable for this costly expenditure in a sagging economy desperate for some impetus? It is a salutary lesson to the government of how negligent and ineffective governance can afflict taxpayers and the economy.  Emergency measures have to be taken to address the loss of control of the Camp Street prisoners and efforts must be accelerated to ensure humane and secure facilities for prisoners.

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