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The whimsical world of financial instruction

Scott Simmons

I tuned in on the evening of May 20 to the debates in the House of Assembly and the listening public could be forgiven for being quite confused over the relevance of the oversight provided by the Government’s financial instructions and the apparent need for former and present governments to ignore them while demanding that all managers and line workers throughout the Civil Service strictly adhere to them.

I know that as adults we operate under the premise that setting the right example is the best route to buy in, but successive governments have been perceived as having gradually placed more emphasis on achieving political objectives as opposed to keeping their eyes on the costs of such ambitions.

The sheer size and scope of the political objectives written into a party’s platform and placed at the fore during the duration of the party’s term in office has a huge effect on the public accounts and thus its ability to meet its expenses.

It has been argued that the illustrious United Bermuda Party met and exceeded its financial forecasts of balanced budgets and celebratory surpluses because its focus was to promote private enterprise and personal wealth through legislation, using the Civil Service as the vehicle to that end while ignoring the infrastructure and social needs of communities whom they felt did not generate the jobs or, by extension, the wealth.

Nice on paper, but history proved that the electorate did not like the trickle-down approach and preferred an active role in the earning by being a part of who selects who earns and by being the one selected to earn. History also recorded that said demand of inclusion by the electorate led in part to the rise and fall of my beloved Progressive Labour Party. Real or imagined, it is a defect the PLP will soon enough fix, as hindsight is 20/20 and the new group that has led from 2012 is honest, community-focused and a quick learner.

The introduction of financial instructions is a by-product of that common desire and, therefore, should without exception be a permanent part of all goods and services negotiations in government — from bottled water to office supplies to motorised construction equipment to new buildings and bridges.

In the broader sense, government financial instructions are designed in part to ensure that the general public receive value for monies paid for goods and services while levelling the playing field so that all who want to get a fair opportunity to bid on said goods and services can. If followed, these instructions present the avoidance of doubt in whether the need for said goods and services is met with the best quality and price of said goods and services.

If negotiated properly, our money in all cases will be seen to be well spent. The time taken in the negotiations should be as long as needed to get the best price and service, and the canvas broadly brushed with a minimum of a three-bids approach should be non-negotiable.

Government players change; solid, time-tested policies and instructions should not. They should remain the bedrock of our government, not part of its shifting sands.

Whatever government party sits on top, maintaining that balance without compromise sends a strong message to the Civil Service and encourages those within to always use best practices and sound, above-board tender processes, regardless of party affiliation, personal preferences or expediency.

In a perfect world, some may say in the absence of political influence, the best products and services are secured by the Government at a cost of least impact to the current account. Its ability to balance the annual budgets and reduce expenditures in government depends on its ability to control in part the price it pays for products it needs. In other words, the price it paid for the goods and services in the past should not set a precedent for present and future price negotiations going forward.

Times have changed and our ability to pay top dollar for goods and services priced at past tolerance levels, based on relaxed purchasing-power practices driven by demand and taxpayer money to burn, should be long gone. We should be negotiating all upfront costs on the mere largesse of the Government, from travel to vehicles to furnishings.

The need for fiscal belt tightening is upon us and the move from “one hole under the belt buckle” to a more snugly fitting hole is exactly where we need to be right about now. The knack for politicians and the civil servants who are all to willing to oblige to exceed budgets to fit wish lists should in Bermuda be a thing of the past.

Once we return to balanced budgets, we should be operating under the premise that if we cannot afford it, should we be buying it?

All governments must match the will, hopes and aspirations of their electorate with their ability to deliver on them once in office. This remains a challenge.

The last PLP administration placed an enormous emphasis on this reality, but also understood that these ambitions must be measured and properly administered to reduce the pitfalls and negative perceptions of previous administrations, while satisfying international procurement guidelines that leave little room for mismanagement or political influence in public financial practices.

Like or dislike us, the last PLP administration — with its Premier leading the charge as Minister of Finance — endured strong resistance from within the Cabinet and throughout the party and community on establishing the Office of Tendering and Procurement with its army of checkers. The resisters took the view that it removed a government’s ability to realise the promised, capital projects enshrined in the party platform by adding layers of check-and-balance bureaucracy, which would leave the real-life, expensive and electable issues dying on the vine.

The real feel was that the physical, emotional and financial supporters of the parties would be exhausted by the process, with little or nothing to show in the end and would remember their exhaustion and exclusion at the next election. Our failure to effectively resolve that issue in the last PLP administration, despite satisfying the procurement loopholes and setting us on the road to good governance and favourable indications from the international agencies, left many established job creators, entrepreneurs and those who supported us and them wondering just who we, the PLP, were working for.

The twist of the present day is that, by all appearances, the voters have had their say and the new government sees the rubric of the procurement process more as a hindrance to its big picture and goals rather than the tangible and symbolic value, and regulatory comfort that its existence brings.

I wonder if we have noticed that the general public have moved past questioning the need for good governance in whatever shape or form it assumes and see it as a pathway to government-wide cost-saving.

Financial instructions and procurement procedures are designed to safeguard the public purse and the Government’s fiscal integrity. All public officers, including the last holdouts in the Cabinet and corner offices throughout government, must ensure the Civil Service’s day-to-day compliance of these guidelines if we have any hope of recovery.

Whether or not the Cabinet, through its oversight, can continue arbitrarily to suspend or allow the suspension of one of its own golden rules to fit personal pleasure depends on just how much value the public place on such suspensions. The attention the public give to the suspensions will depend on the amount of overall benefit they believe they can actually realise. As both the Government and the country weigh who benefits most, and organises their offence or defence accordingly, the Civil Service will conduct business as usual.

Scott Simmons is the former press secretary and press attaché to the Office of the Premier of Bermuda in the former Progressive Labour Party government