THE Government must appoint a business ease ‘Czar’ as part of “major surgery” to repair the Bahamas’ outdated governance model, a prominent QC has urged.
Brian Moree QC, senior partner at McKinney, Bancroft & Hughes, told Tribune Business that the Bahamas’ business environment would only improve if it broke free from the Cabinet-centric decision-making structure employed for the past 50 years.
He argued that hundreds of minor matters, upon which decisions should be taken by lower-ranking public officials, were constantly funnelled up to Cabinet, overloading policymakers and creating bureaucratic bottlenecks to the frustration of businesses and investors.
“We have to find a way to make a quantum jump in the ease of doing business rankings, and the only way to do that is by major overhaul and reform of our governance model,” Mr Moree told this newspaper.
“We have a highly-centralised model where all kinds of things go to Cabinet that should never go to Cabinet. Empower your people down the chain of command, hold them accountable and then you will see things start to move.
“Right now, everything has to go to Cabinet, and it’s not a way to run a modern country.”
Mr Moree said the Bahamas’ current governance model was “like saying everything has to go through the Board of Directors in a company” - a system that would ensure such a company rapidly ceased trading.
“You’d be out of business; everything can’t go to the Board of Directors,” he added, explaining that a Board - like the Cabinet - should only be dealing with major policy matters and high-level strategy.
“You can’t run company through the Board of Directors, and you can’t run a country through Cabinet,” Mr Moree told Tribune Business. “That’s what we’re trying to do, and have been doing it for 50 years.
“There has to be a decentralisation of decision-making powers, but that can be dangerous unless you increase the level of accountability and have the ability to get rid of people when they drop the ball.
“There needs to be decentralisation with a higher level of accountability. Let the important stuff go to Cabinet, and let’s get the country moving.”
Central to Mr Moree’s decentralisation strategy is the appointment of a business ease ‘Czar’, who would be empowered by the Prime Minister and Cabinet to cut through the inter-agency bureaucracy that is constantly cited in private sector complaints.
“If the Government is going to seriously tackle this bureaucratic jungle that we currently have in the Bahamas, I think the Prime Minister has to seriously consider appointing what I would call a ‘Czar’, a business ‘Czar’, who has cross-ministerial and agency authority to comprehensively overhaul the way in which business is conducted in the Bahamas,” the well-known QC told Tribune Business.
“I don’t think what I would call ‘tweaking the edges’ or cutting out one or two steps in the process is going to get us where we need to be. This is a question of major surgery, and will require strong political will because implementing change and reform throughout Government is an extremely difficult thing to do.
“But we have to address it if we are going to improve our competitive position in the region and globally. This is not minor stuff; this is a major initiative that has to be undertaken.”
Mr Moree said it was especially important that a business ease ‘Czar’ have government-wide, cross-departmental powers so that he/she could cut through the ‘walls’ that divide different public sector agencies.
With ministers unable to exert direct influence beyond their portfolios, and many public servants determined to protect ‘their territory’, numerous investment projects and private sector proposals have suffered extensive delays - or foundered - because of the wait for one agency to give the necessary approvals.
“This person has to have authority given to him by the Prime Minister and Cabinet to cut across these ministries,” Mr Moree reiterated. “This is serious business, and if we move three-four spots a year we’ll still be way down the [World Bank’s ease of doing business] listing in five years.
“These are some of the components of a serious intent to tackle this problem: Decentralisation; elimination of bureaucracy; the rationalisation of departments and agencies; cutting out duplication; a greater commitment to turnaround time and processes; and the appointment of a business ‘Czar’ who has cross-ministerial and agency authority.”
The Bahamas enjoyed modest improvement in the World Bank’s recently-published ‘ease of doing business’ rankings, moving up two spots from 121st to 119th, and stopping successive years of decline in the listing.
However, Mr Moree blasted: “I don’t think the Bahamas can be content with a small, incremental increase in our ‘ease of doing business’ ranking over the next several years, like the one we just had.
“Any improvement is welcome, but we don’t have the time to move three-four spots every time for the next three to five years. I think there has to be a major reform of our current governance model if we are to achieve a significant improvement in our ease of doing business ranking.
“Apart from seriously considering moving away from the current heavily centralised form of government, which involves multiple layers of bureaucracy and a significant degree of duplication, I think there has to be a major rationalisation of the number of government agencies and departments which are involved in the conduct of business in the Bahamas,” he added.
“There have to be systemic changes to streamline processes and procedures, and there has to be a commitment to significantly reduce the turnaround time for the processing of applications in government agencies across the board.”
As an example of what was required, Mr Moree said he “strongly applauds” the Commercial Enterprises Bill, which mandates by law that the director of Immigration approve work permit applications from industries covered by the legislation within 14 days of receipt. Failure to make a decision within that timeframe will see those work permits automatically approved.