Unfulfilled prescriptions

It is a fairly safe bet to say that in the last twenty years consultants have produced enough documents to paper the walls of the ministries that commissioned them. A trail from Georgetown to Lethem could probably be surfaced with technical writing and infrastructure appraisals alone. At least this way the findings would see the light of day, a cynic might say.

Successive administrations have displayed a talent for commissioning reports and donor agencies have displayed an answering talent for enabling them with funding – as loans – to indulge yet another study. Now we are at the happy stage where much of a new consultant’s labour consists of reviewing his predecessors’ opinions. Many reports simply reiterate earlier recommendations – a form of recycling that we could perhaps patent and export. This costly farce may amuse those who perpetrate it, but its benefits remain unclear to the hapless polity which foots the bill.

No report is more prestigious than the findings of a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) and President Granger has sought their advice repeatedly. At least CoIs mostly involve local experts rather than simply importing foreign ‘experts’ who distil their local counterparts’ knowledge into a new text. Recent Commissions of Inquiry have duly produced reports and recommendations for action. In a new twist, however, the Granger administration has started to commission supplementary advice based on its CoIs’ recommendations.

There comes a point where the proliferation of these reports exceeds the public’s understanding and willingness to endure the process. That is where we are now. Whether CoIs have become a deliberate stalling tactic or their indefinite afterlives are evidence of an ingrained bureaucracy run amok, it is time to address the elephant in the room. Is a CoI meant to spur action, or is it just an elaborate procrastination? At what point will the government forgo further analysis and try instead to implement solutions?

Consider two recent CoIs. The 2015 CoI into the sugar industry produced a coherent analysis and detailed recommendations. How many have of these been implemented? The report prompted Cabinet retreats and debates, and responsibility for setting policy and a course of action was vested in the GuySuco Board. After a significant delay, the Board enacted policies that were completely at variance with the CoI recommendations. While it is entitled to do so, doesn’t this make a mockery of the rather costly CoI process?

Similarly, the Patterson report from the CoI into the Camp Street prison ended with a list of recommendations. Foremost among them, the need for a High Level Committee “representing all of the agencies with responsibilities to the prison system” to focus on reducing overcrowding. This was never implemented. Instead, a Jamaican firm was recruited to propose ways of ‘modernizing the prison system’ and it provided options for increasing prison capacity. The government has now elected to extend the existing prison facility at Mazaruni and entrusted the first phase of this task to a Trinidadian firm. The facility will eventually house 2000 inmates and cost $6 billion. The gist of the Patterson report was that overcrowding was caused by a dysfunctional penal system (“a myriad of institutional deficiencies”). It prioritized “reducing numbers in prison to manageable levels.” The solutions, it suggested, lay within the system. The current course of action represents a significantly different policy in which the state has elected to increase capacity with no clear rationale for its actions.

Reports are not, of course, substitutes for action, but they are meant to inform our actions. If there is such a thing as a hierarchy among reports, one assumes that the findings of a CoI stand somewhere near the top. If subsequent policy and actions diverge substantially from a CoI’s recommendations, this cannot but seem arbitrary, insulated from further debate and scrutiny, especially when the government declines to explain its new rationale.

There is a profound disconnect in our society between public statements of intent and the actions that follow these statements. It breeds mistrust and misunderstanding. The original sin can perhaps be traced to our Constitution which provided for multiple commissions (envisaged as checks and balances). Several have never been established. In other words, our most public statement of intent, our social contract, has never been fully validated.

In a local forum, one of the more forthright members of the current diplomatic corps recently emphasized the need for “implementation, implementation, implementation.” Reports, recommendations and beautifully packaged policies, he suggested, are just so many words unless they are translated into action. Last year, the Caribbean Policy Research Institute at Mona tackled this question. They suggested, among other things, an “implementation committee” including at least one member of the original commission. Perhaps we need one. At the moment we are like the patient who is advised on a course of medication but does nothing to fulfil the prescription. It is now time for us to stop second-guessing the doctors and to follow their prescriptions.

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