Standard Operating Procedures

The United States led invasion of Iraq which began in 2003 saw the Abu Ghraib scandal emerging as one of the more infamous fallouts of that war. The scandal centred on many human rights violations committed by US Army and Central Intelligence Agency personnel on prisoners of war at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The violations included physical and sexual abuse, torture and even murder.

In 2008, American Film Director and writer, Errol Morris produced a documentary movie examining the atrocities carried out at Abu Ghraib prison and, interestingly, choose to name the documentary ‘Standard Operating Procedure.’ In just the single act of naming the movie he drew attention to the abrupt and widescale departure from legal norms and established procedures that occurred within the administration of the Abu Ghraib prison resulting in the sustained abuses, and placed culpability at the feet of those responsible for carrying out their jobs according to established guidelines.

The term Standard Operating Procedure (or SOP) is very well known and also well-worn jargon in many organisations, particularly military and disciplined services bodies. SOPs refer to the “set of step-by-step instructions compiled by an organization to help workers carry out complex routine operations. SOPs aim to achieve efficiency, quality output and uniformity of performance, while reducing miscommunication and failure to comply with industry regulations.”

Every organization has its set of SOPs that need to be followed in carrying out complex everyday tasks, and these SOPs lend themselves to uniformity of function by different employees carrying out similar tasks. SOPs are intended to remove the need for each person to have to interpret complex rules, regulations and laws in carrying out day-to-day tasks, since the need for individual interpretation of complex issues would lead to wide variations in implementing tasks by different personnel.

In Guyana, it may be safe to say that many of our institutions seem to function without having a system of documented SOPs being in place, and this has led to varying levels of uncertainty, confusion and inefficiency in the execution of duties, particularly where the public is being directly served. In the Abu Ghraib example used, the rank and file perpetrators of the indignities and abuses were singled out for punishment after the expose by CBS News, but there was tremendous concern that such departures from SOPs could not have been committed without the knowledge and/or complicity of many senior personnel. Indeed, a function of having SOPs in place is to ensure that departures from established procedures are noted by those in authority so that corrective action can be taken.

State run institutions in Guyana have tended to be particularly vulnerable to political changes which seem to invariably result in dramatic staff changes in these organisations. This fact may be partly responsible for the exodus of institutional knowledge which many such institutions have been grappling with over the years. In the absence of well documented SOPs, institutional knowledge is critical for the retention of systems and procedures and the smooth running of the organisation.

There have been countless incidents at various levels of government and state and privately-run institutions that demonstrate that SOPs either do not exist with regard to the execution of certain functions and complex decisions, are inadequate, or else are being avoided without consequence. What should be routine matters are too often nowadays finding their way into being examined by the courts, mainly because the manner of execution (and not necessarily the intent) is outside of the SOPs which usually means that it is also ultra vires the legal authority.

Many of the scandals and palpable missteps by those in authority over the years could have been handled effectively or avoided if SOPs had been in place and utilised. From the Guyana Police Force and their almost daily foray into lawlessness, the Mayor & City Council and their catastrophic handling of the city’s affairs, the Ministry of Health and its departure from established and publicly known procedures, the Child Care & Protection Agency which within a few short years experienced two consecutive fires in one building with disastrous consequences, the schools and the Ministry of Education dealing inadequately with child safety and child security matters, and the unregulated construction industry where projects fail abysmally but no one is held to account, the list just goes on and on with examples of inadequate, non-existent or apparently disregarded SOPs in organisations.

But this state of affairs cannot continue indefinitely without ever increasing adverse consequences, and it is therefore very encouraging to see Minister of Social Protection Amna Ally reporting just this November that SOPs were being developed for the handling of cases involving the crime of Trafficking in Persons (TIP). The Minister pointed out that, “With so many actors involved in responding to human trafficking in Guyana, the government recognises the value of a standardised and harmonised response. No single stakeholder can effectively combat human trafficking, but a coordinated response is only possible when clear and coordinated procedures… are adopted by all stakeholders.”

Standardised, harmonised, clear and coordinated procedures – the Minister’s soundbite succinctly captured many of the important aspects of the purpose and functioning of SOPs and seemed to signal government’s awareness and understanding of the importance of properly established and documented rules of procedure. However, it is well known that the agitation surrounding TIP finds its origin in donor countries and it might be considered that Guyana is merely responding to external pressures. Minister Ramjattan’s comments pointed to this when he revealed that the SOP workshop was related to Guyana’s efforts to maintain its Tier 1 status regarding TIP, saying, “It is a status we have fought hard to achieve and we will fight harder still to maintain.”

It would certainly redound to the benefit of the entire nation if the Minister and the government could “fight hard” to establish and maintain Standard Operating Procedures in all state run organisations and agencies.

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