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‘Stop appointing friends and family to boards’

Published: 
Sunday, March 19, 2017
Denise Demming

Members of state boards, managers and politicians are not following the structure prescribed by the State Enterprises Performance Monitoring Manual, and it is for this reason that problems arise.

Last Sunday, this newspaper explored some of the challenges to state boards and their management of the enterprises which benefit from taxpayers’ dollars.

This week, the Sunday Guardian speaks to past and present state board members about their personal experiences and the challenges inherent in the job.

In May 2016, seven months after she was appointed chairman of the soon-to-be-dissolved Tourism Development Corporation (TDC) Denise Demming was removed and replaced. In an interview shortly after the decision was taken to fire her, Demming said her firing was as a result of not being in agreement with the governance policies of the new administration.

The board subsequently wrote that they had lost confidence in Demming. These situations where board members resign or are fired mid-term are frequent occurrences in state enterprises.

Responding to questions from the Sunday Guardian, Demming said there was nothing wrong with the current governance model of state enterprises, other than the fact that they weren’t adhered to.

In the model prescribed by the State Enterprise Performance Monitoring Manual, ministers do not give specific instructions to the board.

“Contrary to what is prescribed in the “State Enterprises Performance Monitoring Manual”, politicians and public servants like to dip their fingers into the business of these organisations rather than allow them to function as a normal corporation,” Demming said.

“There is a 182-page document which prescribes the method of operating for all state enterprises. It is a good document but very few board members are minded to read the document. If they would follow the structure, there would be no issue.”

‘Find the best talent for boards’

She said the challenges stem from a misunderstanding of the role and function and what would be considered standard operating procedures.

“As a collective, we need to change the way persons are appointed to boards. We cannot continue to appoint friends and family of the winning party. We have to be more inclusive and find the best talent wherever that talent exists.

“If I could wave a wand, I would establish an authority where people could apply to serve and ensure that the selection criteria, applications and appointments are available for anyone to scrutinise. Additionally, applicants would be interviewed in public very much like how the public accounts committee’s work is televised. We have to move from secrecy to transparency in order to rebuild trust in our institutions and leaders.”

Demming said she learned a lot about how ill T&T’s democracy is when she served as the chair of TDC.

“When I served as the chair of TDC I enjoyed most of it because I believed that I would be allowed to make a difference. I believed in the system, but did not realize how FEW people follow the systems and procedures that have been designed to ensure we have a high performing democracy. I was not allowed to make a difference primarily because I was not aligned with the method of operations of the minister and by extension the Cabinet. I was prepared to follow the rules, they were not.”

Bodoe: Difficult, slower to get things done

Current MP for Fyzabad, Dr Lackram Bodoe, was chairman of the South West Regional Health Authority prior to the last quarter of 2015.

Bodoe recalled that it was a lot more difficult and slower to get things done in the public sector as compared to the private sector. He said, however, that one has to respect the checks and balances necessary to protect public funds and ensure that citizens receive value for money.

According to Bodoe, the main challenges he faced as chairman were not political but operational issues in the authority.

He said there were poor systems of inventory control especially in the supply of pharmaceuticals and other patient supplies that result in so-called shortages and a culture that was not care focused and client friendly.

“I found that engaging the CEO and management in an environment of mutual respect allowed cooperation that provided the solution to some of these issues.

“As a board, we were able to implement the operationalization of the San Fernando Teaching Hospital to increase beds, the provision of a 24-hour customer service hotline, and engaging special managers to oversee patient flow and safety in Casualty and the Labor Ward.

“My personal experience is that serving on a state board is very demanding in terms of time and effort if you want to make a difference, but can be rewarding and fulfilling especially in the healthcare sector.”

For Bodoe, the issues faced by other members of state board weren’t challenges within his authority.

Clyde Paul: You struggle to get things going

In an interview Friday, current chairman of the Cepep board, former Point Fortin Mayor Clyde Paul, said he was new to the state board experience.

“This is the first time I’ve have served on a state board and my experience has been one that you struggle to get things going.”

He said in his experience so far, the management team had been very professional.

“The board only had its first meeting this week. We received instructions from the management team on the present situation. We have met a situation at Cepep where Cepep was far removed from its moorings.”

He said it was his understanding that state boards were required to make decisions and make strategic direction, but in the absence of funding it was more difficult to get things done.

“What can be done with little money will be done and we hope we can do a lot more with what has been given to us.”