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Time for some accountability

GM got me to thinking, Mr Editor: General Motors, that is, the car manufacturer that was recoiling under intense scrutiny and withering criticism for those faulty ignition switches that claimed 13 lives and caused countless other accidents and injuries. It was what GM did in response that caught my attention.

The company commissioned an independent investigation by a former US Attorney and then — wait for it — made the findings public.

The report did not paint a pretty picture. While the investigator found no evidence of a cover-up conspiracy, what he found instead was a decided and arguably deliberate culture of inaction, one made up of equal parts negligence and complacency. To quote from his report, he found GM was steeped in “bureaucratic processes that avoid accountability”. Sound familiar?

The net result so far: 15 employees have been fired, and others suspended with and without pay. More may follow. But what was key, I think, was GM's decision to share the report and its findings, not just with the regulators and congressional committees, who were breathing down their corporate necks, but with the general public as well.

When employees were given advance copies, it came with a clear message from their CEO Mary Berra. “This”, the CEO said, “is a test of our character and our values. In the end, I'm not afraid of the truth. and I know that you aren't either. We will face up to our mistakes and take them face on.” Wow.

Now we know that manufacturing and selling cars is not the same as practicing politics and governing a country, but product and promises in the marketplace are not that far apart. The responsibilities and stakes may even be higher. It seems to me too, that there is a lesson here that goes well beyond just good public relations: call it Accountability 101.

You might think I have in mind the OBA's “full-fledged” investigation that we were promised some four weeks ago now, and one big resignation later. I do. But I also have in mind the broader issue of accountability and how important it is, critical even, that it works, and that it bites, and at the highest levels, that is starting from the Legislature and the Government on down.

This isn't just some fancy concept worthy of genuflection now and again. The importance of accountability, the need for accountability, is a constant theme in reports of the Auditor General. Sad to say, it's been that way for years. Re-read the SAGE Commission too, if you want to see some of the problems and challenges we have to contend with as a result.

I have always maintained that for accountability to occur in practice, the example needs to be set, actually demonstrated, by those at the top of the pyramid we call government.

Let's start with the Legislature and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). This body of the Legislature is meant to be the public watchdog on public expenditure, meeting regularly, and with public hearings. The goal here it to hold the spenders to account. But they are way, way behind on this front.

Last week, for instance, we got news of a report, the most recent, and that was into events that happened years ago. Historical analysis may be nice and interesting, ho hum, so after the fact, long after the horse has even disappeared. It is current action and contemporaneous analysis that we need: not ex post facto rationalisation and justification.

An active and robust committee could also expand into other important and critical areas. For example, if it is banking practices we want to know more about and what can be done to ameliorate and improve on what can or cannot be done — and we do — PAC or perhaps a sub-committee thereof, could take on the role. This wouldn't just be educational but an engaging way to engage politicians, bankers and the public they each serve. Government might also be helped by recommendations.

But, hang on here, it doesn't help when even our MPs refuse to appear before their own committees. This reportedly was the case recently for both PAC and the Elections Committee which is hardly a good example, or any example at all, of how to handle being held to account. However, committees of the Legislature do have the power to issue subpoenas for attendance. It may be past time that that power was exercised and a message sent.

Look, we all make mistakes and errors in judgment. We're human. We understand that. But being held to account should also be an essential part of the process. It helps to shed light on what's wrong and what needs to be corrected and, yes, in some cases, corrective action should be taken. Or else, you have to ask, what is the point of codes of practice, whether ministerial or other? Or financial instructions? Or directives? The people watch and they wonder.

Incidentally, we should not overlook that the spotlight also helps deter.

Speaking of accountability at the top, I note the UK Government has now moved on one of the key promises that brought their coalition to power: the right of recall. Early reports indicate that it will be designed to give voters the power to sack misbehaving MPs. Apparently, this right of recall will be triggered if MPs are given jail sentences or if the House of Commons decide that a MP has engaged in “serious wrongdoing”. No word yet, mind you, on just what will constitute “serious wrongdoing” and just how it will work: think censure motions and the challenges this will bring. Voters would then have to collect the signatures of 10 percent of the constituency to force a by-election.

Early critics say it does not go far enough. But it's a start and a template from which to work. A right of recall, you might also recall, just happened to another election promise of the OBA.

Happy holiday everyone: find a living hero and give him or her a hug of appreciation.

* Meanwhile share your views either on The Royal Gazette website or write jbarritt@ibl.bm.

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Published June 13, 2014 at 9:00 am (Updated June 12, 2014 at 11:06 pm)

Time for some accountability

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