I am unaware GECOM took decision to discard pool of trained persons, constitutional deadline is overriding factor in setting election date

Dear Editor,

Please permit me space to respond to the letter captioned `GECOM could not deliver elections in 90 days, need for rigorous training cannot be over-emphasized’ which was published in the Stabroek News of 15 March 2019, in the name of Yolanda Ward, Public Relations Officer (PRO) of the Guyana Elections Commission, in response to statements I made during my exclusive interview with the Stabroek News.

In her letter, Ms. Ward sought to dismiss my comments as pontifications and asserted that I have “now resorted to peddling inaccurate information in the public domain”.  She goes further by her “offer” of clarity to put my “dismal recollection of operational activities” into true perspective.

Editor, in this response I have only one goal; to address the issues raised by the GECOM PRO in her attempt to disprove my comments published by the Stabroek News, and to do this with the optimistic expectation that rational open minded Stakeholders who read it would arrive at a plausible conclusions for themselves. That being said, I value my personal and professional integrity too highly that I would never injure myself by offering inaccurate information to mislead the public.

Before I respond in earnest, it is instructive to note that the PRO by her own words in an article published in the Guyana Chronicle on 27 December 2018 titled “GECOM ready for elections – whenever called upon, says PRO” contradicts herself.  Should we note the obvious contradiction, one may without too much hesitation conclude convenient massage of facts to suit a particular narrative.  Not surprisingly, her double speak in these instances is not seen as “dismal”.

The GECOM PRO acknowledges that the Commission “had explored the possibility of having a pool of trained persons who could have been used for elections whenever the need should arise”, and goes on to inform that “that policy decision was thrown out after the 2016 Local Government Elections.”  Firstly, by her own admission, Ms. Ward recognizes the justification for creating the ‘pool’, a task which she deemed to be exploratory, but then went on to classify the initiative as a “policy decision”.  More contradictions?  Secondly, Ms. Ward would have us believe that this “policy decision” was abandoned without providing any justification for such a decision.  Credibility is achieved through the logical and rationally consistent presentation of credible facts.

I was employed by the GECOM up to August, 2017, and as far as I can recollect, the Commission took no such decision to throw out the “pool”.  If Ms. Ward wants us to believe that the Commission took such a decision, the least she could do is inform on when, where, why and by whom such a decision was taken.  Notwithstanding the forgoing on this specific issue, I hereby invite Ms. Ward to provide answers to the following questions to allow for reasonable and rationale minds to understand the abandonment of the “pool”: –

Is GECOM in possession of a database of persons who were trained in election work since 2014?

If it does, would this not be considered as the said “pool” of trained personnel?

Does the purported throwing out of the “policy decision” to have a pool of trained persons (who could have been used for elections whenever the need should arise) mean that GECOM considers that the persons listed in the database are no longer suitable and fit for employment?  Or, that their performance in previous appointments were so poor that they must go through full-blown “rigorous training”?

Is this an indication that GECOM does not now place value on hands-on experience in considering candidates for training?

Did GECOM take into consideration the possibility of the need to conduct full blown training, and the relevant duration, within 90 days when it took the “policy decision” to having a pool of trained persons who could have been used for elections whenever the need should arise?  If it did, what was the alternative to ensuring that adequate staffing would be available to ensure the conduct of the elections within such a timeframe?

In view of the last above question, I beg to submit that one of the main reasons behind the creation of the “pool” was that the GECOM Secretariat recognized the Constitutional possibility of the need for elections to be held within three months following a no confidence motion.  Hence, the Secretariat advocated for and got the approval of the Commission to create the “pool”.  Therefore, I find it very intriguing that the Commission would throw out such an advantageous asset, if in fact this was done.

I would be the first to admit that Local Government Elections is

different from General and Regional Elections insofar as the systems and purposes are concerned.  However, I wish to emphasize that the voting procedure remains the same.  Accordingly, I find it impossible to accept that persons with experience in the Election Day processes and who worked for the conduct of previous elections would have to go through full-blown “rigorous” training to qualify to work for future elections.  I expect that the argument would be put forward that the ballots for Local Government Elections are expected to be different from those for General and Regional Elections.  But this does not change the fact that the entire voting procedure on Election Day remains the same.

Ms. Ward informed that “In our quality assurance analysis, it was determined that the magnitude of content to be presented by the trainers would be strenuous for two persons. Even participants get tired. Training teams function best in groups of three.”  In this regard, it is my considered view that “the magnitude of content to be presented” does not apply to persons who were already trained and who worked for previous elections.  Therefore, a shortened version (one day) of training focusing on crucial areas and conducted by two trainers would suffice.  If not, I will have to be guided by adequate answers to the following questions: –

Has GECOM ever conducted one-day training with two trainers as I suggested, to determine whether this would be strenuous on the part of the trainers?

Considering that the trainers are mostly teachers, are these not the same personnel who single-handedly manage a class through the day during their routine occupation, and many of whom might be giving extra lessons in the afternoon in addition to having to mark classwork and prepare for classes the next day?

Is it not true that the same trainers, having worked at their full-time jobs from Monday through Friday, have to report for work at GECOM in the afternoons from 4pm to 7pm to mark evaluations of the candidates trained the preceding weekend.  If it is, does the issue of their work being “strenuous” apply?

If the participants get tired due to the strenuous presentations during training (about six-seven hours on any given training day with a one-hour break for lunch), how are we to expect that they would be able to perform efficiently on Election Day considering that they are required to be at the Polling Stations at 5am for the polls to open at 6am.  This is in addition to the fact that they have to remain at the Polling Stations way beyond 6pm to facilitate and participate in the Election Day post poll activities.

May I reiterate that, with regards to the conduct of training of Polling Day staff for elections within the three-months provision, it is my considered view that the conduct of refresher training targeting persons already trained can be conducted successfully during one-day training sessions by teams of two trainers.  This would effectively reduce the now earmarked training timeframe by more than 50%.  Any shortfall can be addressed through the training of inexperienced candidates by three-member training teams on one weekend when all of the candidates could be mobilized to the selected training venues.

Ms. Ward recalled, for the benefit of all concerned that the Commission had previously recognized that the conduct of elections would require at least 180 days. She supported this position by noting that former Chairman, Dr. Steve Surujbally in correspondence to former Head of the Presidential Secretariat, Dr. Roger Luncheon on 17th October, 2014 under the caption “GECOM’s Commitment to Satisfying its Constitutional Mandate” wrote “Further, it must be noted that the Commission has publicly stated that when the decision to hold Local Government Elections is officially communicated to us, a period of six (6) months is required to allow our Secretariat to complete essential prerequisite activities to ensure GECOM’s compliance with all related Legislation and Regulations and satisfying the necessary administrative requirements as has (sic) been established.”

In this regard, I take the opportunity to make the following points:-

The contents of the letter she referenced is irrelevant.  Dr. Surujbally’s comment to Dr. Luncheon was given in a totally different context in which the preparations in question were relevant to the possibility of the conduct of Local Government Elections and not General and Regional Elections as in the current scenario wherein there is a time limit of three months for the holding of elections following the passage of the no confidence motion.

Further, that letter is demonstrative of the commitment of Dr. Surujbally, in his generally proactive style, to take the initiative to inform the then Government of the time that would be required to prepare for Local Government Elections should that have materialized before the 2015 General and Regional Elections.  He did not wait on an instruction from the government.  In this regard, it is essential to note that such preparations would have been focused on the conduct of the elections using a hybrid system which was never used anywhere in the world.  So there was no precedence to follow.  Also, those elections would have included preparations of Registers of Voters for Local Government Elections as against the current situation wherein a valid Official List of Electors is in existence.

Ms. Ward informs that while GECOM is cognizant that the Constitution dictates 90 days, it can only deliver within a timeframe that is practical and within the confines of the legal and procedural requirements as outlined in Chapter 1:03.  This statement assumes that the legal and procedural requirements of the Representation of the People Act Chapter 1:03 takes precedence over the Constitutional provision that elections be held in three months immediately following the passage of a no confidence motion.  Is this really so?  And is Ms. Ward insinuating that GECOM is in deliberate contravention of the relevant Constitutional provision?

In relation to Ms. Ward’s mention of my reasoning of the “CEO’s capabilities”, I did make it clear during my interview with Stabroek News that during the 16 years in which I worked alongside Mr. Keith Lowenfield, I have always known him to be a very forward-thinking man.  Hence, I would be surprised if he did not commence work proactively in initiating the preparation of a Work Plan for the elections even without directions from the Commission for him to so do.  This is what initiative at executive management level is all about.  My comments were not given as an attack on the CEO.  Rather it was an expression of confidence in his ability, as Head of the Secretariat, to react positively and adequately to the passage of the no confidence motion. 

Is Ms. Ward saying that the CEO would have been sanctioned by the Commission for taking such an initiative?  I think not.  But further, I humbly submit that Ms. Ward’s statement as published in the herein referenced Guyana Chronicle article is indicative that such a proactive initiative was in fact taken by Mr. Lowenfield.  If not, how else would a declaration have been made to the effect that, “GECOM ready for elections — whenever called upon”, six days after the passage of the no confidence motion on December 21, 2019.

As regards Ms. Ward’s advice that guidance should be sought from the Repre-sentation of the Peoples Act, Chapter 1:03 on the Commission’s roles and responsibilities, it is hereby noted that the roles and responsibilities of the Commission are covered by Constitutional provisions (not Representation of the People’s Act Chapter 1:03) e.g. Article 161A (see Section 4 of the Election Laws (Amendment) Act No. 2 of 2000, and Sections 16, 17 and 18 of the Elections Law (Amendment) Act No. 15 of 2000.

Editor, I wish to point out that as regards my comments made during the interview by the Stabroek News, I was very careful to ensure that I was guided by respect for and adherence to professional conduct and my knowledge and experience on the subjects on which I commented. 

I am not a critic of the GECOM, its Secretariat, nor Mr. Lowenfield, I simply share my knowledge, expertise and suggestions with the view of aiding the efficient preparations for and conduct of elections as a concerned citizen of Guyana.  I see no reason why I should be debarred from so doing.

I was cautioned repeatedly that in taking part in the interview I would become the subject of attacks on my person, professionalism, knowledge and experience in election management and character.  This has materialized and I expect it to continue following this letter.  Nonetheless, I intend to continue to share my professional and technical knowledge and experience for the accurate information of all concerned.

Yours faithfully,

Vishnu Persaud

Former Deputy Chief Election

Officer

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