By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Governance reformers yesterday argued that the Government's planned upgrades to anti-corruption, procurement and fiscal laws will set "a path to a more productive and sustainable Bahamas if we get it right".
Matt Aubry, the Organisation for Responsible Governance's (ORG) executive director, told Tribune Business that the legislative changes foreshadowed by the Davis administration would "open up the door to so much economic and social opportunity" if they deliver the improved transparency and accountability that has long been promised.
Speaking ahead of Parliament's fall session beginning in earnest today, he and ORG said they were especially focused on advancing the promised Freedom of Information Act pilot phase as well as reforms to the Public Disclosures Act and Public Procurement Act.
When it came to the latter, Mr Aubry told this newspaper that ORG was particularly concerned that the Davis administration's plans to make the Act more efficient and user-friendly did not undermine the improved transparency that the existing legislation had ushered in when it came to bidding on, and the award of, government contracts.
"That's mainly our goal," he confirmed. "So that what we're seeing is not only a more streamlined process but that it's as open as possible to build the trust of folks to participate. There has to be the disclosure of information so that the Government can make effective decisions on expenditure. If they favour local contractors, they get information on how these bids are determined.
"The opportunity with the Public Procurement Act is really to invigorate a broader base of small, medium and micro enterprises to participate in government contracts and processes. They need to trust that it's worthwhile to go through the process, to respond and participate in bids."
The Government recently announced that it has upgraded its electronic procurement portal, and it has urged vendors and merchants to register so that they can be informed of - and participate in - contract bids and awards that might suit them.
The Public Procurement Act, passed by Parliament under the former Minnis administration and brought into effect on September 1 last year, just two weeks before the general election, was intended to bring greater transparency and efficiency to the millions of dollars awarded in public sector contracts annually by having the process held out in the open.
The winning bidders, contract award and amount also have to be made public - something the Davis administration has yet to do at all after one year in government. The legislation was also designed to prevent cronyism, nepotism and the awarding of contracts to political favourites rather than based on ability, thus generating improved value for money for Bahamian taxpayers and cutting out corruption and wastage.
However, the Davis administration has argued that the legislation is overly-bureaucratic and cumbersome, which has ensnared simple purchases in red tape and added to costs and inefficiency. It also pointed out that the accompanying regulations and guidance notes, and multiple other requirements needed to give the law effect, were never put in place.
"Components of The Bahamas’ current Public Procurement Act detail modern features such as 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," ORG said yesterday.
"As the Government seeks to amend the legislation for swift and efficient governance, it is essential that accountability and transparency are upheld to engender public trust and competition in government contracts. To support the process of revision, ORG will benchmark regional legislation and global standards as well as offer recommendations for consideration."
As for the Freedom of Information Act, Mr Aubry yesterday called on the Government to advance the "pilot" initiative announced late last year involving ten different public sector agencies. Little has been heard since, and he suggested this was not happening "as quickly as it could" with the result that public interest and "momentum" is at risk of being lost.
"This announcement was a significant step forward for the Freedom of Information Act regime in The Bahamas and was met with positive public response," ORG said. "ORG acknowledges that full enactment of Freedom of Information Act systems can take time. However, in order to meet the public’s expressed interest in gaining access to publicly held information, ORG recommends that efforts be accelerated so that this trial phase is open by the end of the year."
As for the Public Disclosures Act, Mr Aubry said The Bahamas "has an opportunity to again be an innovator in the Caribbean" by reforming a law that was a first for the region when it was initially enacted in 1976. "We've done some benchmarking, and have identified some opportunities to strengthen it, digitise it and bring it forward in a way that the public can review it."
Noting that MPs and senior public officials had frequently been found non-compliant in the disclosure of their wealth, both via income as well as assets and liabilities, Mr Aubry said this mainly related to the failure to meet filing deadlines. "It's just not happening in the timeframe prescribed by the Act," he added, suggesting that making the process electronic via online filings would be the "modern" response to making the process easier, more efficient and transparent.
"The existing public disclosure regime in The Bahamas was pioneering for its time in a regional context," ORG said. "In its 46 years since passage, compliance with the law has been uneven. ORG’s accountable governance committee has benchmarked the Act and noted areas which, if amended and modernised, may benefit the Act’s anti-corruption function and provide more accessibility, accountability and transparency.
"For example, creating an online platform for individuals to complete their declaration can encourage more public officials to comply with the law. Digitised processes tend to reduce cognitive overload and make processes accessible. Moreover, this online platform can be furnished with mechanisms for the public to monitor and assess individuals who have successfully completed their declaration.
"ORG sees digitisation, greater transparency and accessibility, behavioural science and strengthening the integrity of administrative structures as key opportunities regarding this law. Effectively amending this legislation can allow the administration to continue in the ethos of innovation that took place in 1976."
Assessing the bigger picture, Mr Aubry told Tribune Business of the Government's legislative agenda: "If we get it right, it really creates a pathway to a more sustainable and productive Bahamas. It opens the opportunity where we can really start manage and equalise the external forces coming at us...
"We've got to invest in making sure systems and governance are as clear, accountable and transparent as possible as that process opens the door to so much opportunity, economic and social. A lot of these legislative issues have been in check for a while because we've been spending a lot of time over the last four years adjusting to external pressures, compliance and benchmarks set by multinational regulators.
"By following through and pushing on some of these items we see a focus on long-standing issues, and putting more focus and attention on long-standing issues is critical. If we keep getting caught up in the cycle of responding to crisis after crisis, we won't make the progress we need."
Mr Aubry said an Integrity Commission, Ombudsman and Land Use Planning were just some of the other advances that could flow later if the Government fully executes on its present legislative agenda. "That will open up opportunities that can move us into a more positive sense of governance where citizens feel and see the impact in their daily lives," he added.