Letters

ORG targets five priority policy opportunities for 2022

Dear Editor,

As The Bahamas ushers in 2022 amid the current social and economic crises brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, there are many immediate needs that the current Bahamas government should address.

However, the challenges that have emerged from the current crises lie upon decades of issues with governance, partisan politics and changing agendas. As the government tackles immediate needs, it is vitally important to take steps toward long-term sustainable reform.

The Organization for Responsible Governance (ORG) has identified several key policy and legislative opportunities for the coming year that can address longstanding issues that have plagued The Bahamas, strengthen transparency and accountability, improve governance and benefit mid and long-term economic growth and development in the country.

• The full enactment and functioning of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 2017. Passed in the final days before the 2017 election, the FOIA has yet to be fully enacted and The Bahamian public have long waited for the ability to access this fundamental right.

While experts have reported that the average time to bring a FOIA into full enactment can be expected to be three to five years, The Bahamas remains in the formative stages of bringing the act into force after a five-year period.

To date, there have been consultations with FOIA experts in Jamaica and Latin America, and some preliminary training and public outreach. However, the public still cannot utilize their legal rights as per the act.

The hiring of an information commissioner, deputy and associate information commissioner and the opening of their office indicate the most significant step forward. Late last year, the government also stated that 10 of its agencies will be able to receive and respond to FOIA requests from the public beginning in 2022.

In anticipation of this, ORG will be offering virtual town hall sessions to provide public education on how and when to use the FOIA. ORG also encourages government to commit to an equal or greater number of government agencies each year for the next four years, to ensure compliance and citizen access to information across the entirety of government.

• Full enactment and compliance with the Public Procurement Act, 2019. Gazetted in September 2021, this legislation, designed to make government procurement more transparent and encourage economic growth by making government contracted opportunities more accessible to a wider scope of Bahamian vendors.

Key components of the act are based on global standards including online pre-registration of vendors, established government procurement criteria and processes by amount, regular reporting of awarded contracts and the development of a Procurement Committee for open multi-sector oversight of significant contracts.

The government has pledged to assess and potentially amend the bill to increase the opportunity for local vendors and to remove obstacles for government procurement in times of crisis. ORG holds that it will be important that any amendments are undertaken with extensive consultation of the private sector and ensure no loss of transparency or accountability.

Adherence to open and timely reporting of awarded contracts will be critical to ensure the confidence of the public and the competitiveness that will result in the widest participation by local vendors.

• Amendment of the Fiscal Responsibility Act to strengthen the role of the Fiscal Responsibility Committee. In response to the implementation of the first value-added tax (VAT) in The Bahamas, ORG and many civil society and private sector groups pushed for the passage of legislation to commit the government to reduction of the national debt and more open reporting.

The passage of the Fiscal Responsibility Act in 2018 brought The Bahamas in line with modern governance expectations. However, the dual crises of Hurricane Dorian and COVID-19 required The Bahamas to deviate from its pre-established fiscal responsibility goals.

The government has continued to borrow funds to manage the expenses of the COVID-19 crisis and the national debt has expanded to near 100 percent of the nation’s economic output. Subsequently, The Bahamas’ credit rating was reduced to junk status making further borrowing more difficult and expensive at a time when government revenue is down.

As the economy recovers, utilizing the structures outlined in the Fiscal Responsibility Act will be a key resource for the government and public to monitor the nation’s fiscal health and strategies in place to support sustainable growth. The government has indicated it wishes to amend the act to strengthen the role of the Fiscal Responsibility Committee.

ORG commends this and supports the timelier inclusion of independent perspectives and expanded public reporting of The Bahamas fiscal position and the sources of expenditure and revenue.

• Passage of anti-corruption legislation. Corruption and the perception of corruption continue to be a drag on The Bahamas’ reputation, competitiveness, and culture. Estimated to result in hundreds of millions in lost revenue in The Bahamas, the cost of corruption is borne by the public.

Many steps have been taken, like moving government services online, to reduce the incidence of culture, but a stronger national response is required to make a significant impact.

Comprehensively addressing corruption at all levels can result in increased revenue, increased public trust and increased efficiency and effectiveness in government services.

Over the past years, ORG has dedicated significant time and resources to advocate for the establishment of an independent body to receive and vet concerns and claims related to corruption, conflict of interest, public disclosure, and patronage.

This body can educate the public and government toward a culture of integrity, identify and monitor opportunities that can reduce the incidence and perception of corruption and stand as a testament that The Bahamas is a best-of-class jurisdiction for investment and development.

• Comprehensive program of public service reform including legislation, evaluation, and training. All who reside, or do business in or with The Bahamas, rely upon the public service to provide a functional operational framework and an accessible direct point of access for the citizen and private sector.

The effectiveness and efficiency of the public service is strongly linked to the capacity of the private sector to grow. A well-managed, dependable, and user-friendly public service can improve ease of doing business, inclusion, and competitiveness.

A mismanaged public service leads to increased corruption, noncompliance with laws and wastage of taxpayer’s money through recurrent expenditure of non-performing civil servants.

Past studies have estimated that 20 percent of The Bahamas public service is underperforming. In 2019, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) rated the civil service development to be low with a score of 19 out of 100. Functional capacity and management capabilities were identified as the most critical areas of need.

The IDB offered recommendations for improvement using seven indices which included: efficiency, merit, structural consistency, functional capacity, integrative capacity, management capabilities and diversity management.

Additionally, the government of The Bahamas is the largest employer in the country with the public service accounting for a significant portion of the national annual expenditure.

Subsequent administrations have been reluctant to reduce the public service even in the face of significant underperformance.

The draft National Development Plan of The Bahamas refers to the many limitations in the public service and identifies several specific recommendations.

In response, the government has looked to improve performance of government agencies through the development and work of the Deliverables Unit and the Public Financial Management & Performance Monitoring Reform (PFM/PMR) Project.

These programs have been in place for several years, but levels of success have not been easy for the public to discern.

Strong legislation can ensure that improvement of the public service is seen as a priority by being grounded in statute.

There are several relevant policy examples that can be used as benchmarks including the Public Service Bill, which was tabled here in The Bahamas in 2010 or the State Sectors Act from New Zealand, which was the key to reform of their public service.

As such, ORG is currently benchmarking these and other pieces of policy to complete a report with recommendations for legislative improvements to support a more effective, efficient, and well-managed public service.

ORG contends that The Bahamas would be well served by developing a strong open plan anchored by legislation, and the recommendations of the draft National Development Plan for public service improvement across all government agencies and state-owned enterprises and coordinated via the Deliverables Unit.

ORG offers the above policy recommendations as feasible and imminently actionable opportunities for the government to improve the conditions and democracy of its citizens and support the growth and success of the private sector. 

Additionally, the policy actions are opportunities to respond to needs identified in the draft of the National Development Plan: Vision 2040 and subsequently the United National Sustainable Development Goals.

As polices are developed, ORG encourages the broadest engagement of the public through consultations and education, so that their input and interests can be fully considered.

ORG recognizes the vital importance of civil society and private sector collaboration with government and stands ready and available to apply our time and resources in partnership to advance these policy opportunities to work toward a brighter future in The Bahamas.

 The Organization for Responsible Governance (ORG)

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