Opinion: More government agencies should be independent
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I think Minister Sabrina Turner is on the right track with her department’s business case for separating public health from the Health Services Authority (HSA). In my opinion, other government agencies (and commissions) should follow suit and, perhaps, go a step further and completely detach themselves from government. This could lead to better governance and efficiency of these agencies.
How it would work
As a first step, government agencies must have full control over the appointment and removal of their boards of directors (including chairs).
Government control of appointments to agency boards, for example, can lead to political appointments to boards that respond to the wishes of politicians rather than agency clients, i.e. say “we the people”. Without this change, the likely result is that some of the policies carried out by agencies may support a politician’s re-election more than they serve the interests of the people.
Second, the boards of government agencies should have the power to hire and fire employees.
Currently, it is not possible for a board of directors to make suggestions on the hiring and firing of underperforming employees because the powers of a board are limited to the appointment and removal of the CEO.
This restraining power is complicated when CEOs know that there are non-performing employees but, for undisclosed reasons, CEOs continue to keep non-performing employees in the job. As a result, poor or substandard customer service or other services may be provided to the public, exposing the government agency concerned to criticism regarding efficiency and poor service delivery.
Third, to achieve true independence, government agencies must have full autonomy over their finances.
Such self-determination will allow the relevant government agency to manage its own income and expenditure, ensuring that it has sufficient funds for its operations at all times without being compromised by political threats that less funding will be provided if the agency does not comply with politically influenced processes.
To illustrate how politically influenced processes work, when government budgets are approved, some politicians engage in what could best be described as a “card game” where they determine how much each government agency will receive. Politicians with stronger poker faces receive more money allocated to agencies within their portfolio, while those who may not be liked or are not part of the government in power receive less than they deserve. expected to cover the operations of the agency concerned.
Rather than having to depend on allocations from a government budget, agencies should therefore control their own revenues, including setting budgets to meet their operational needs. In other words, customers (ie “people”) will become the priority rather than re-election or politics.
Reaction from public interest groups
The importance of the above has also been highlighted by public interest groups, including Sustainable Cayman.
Commenting on the need for independence, representatives from Sustainable Cayman said:
Too often, the need for all board members of government agencies to be seen as truly independent of political influence comes under regular public scrutiny.
We urge more transparency on our boards so that decisions made are in the public interest and truly reflect all relevant laws and apply discretion allowed only in exceptional circumstances, with appropriate checks and balances .
Decisions should not be the result of political or corporate pressure, but should be fair, honest and administered fairly to all.
Some authorities follow good governance with televised meetings and documented meetings highlighting how decisions were made. There are still many improvements that could be made with progress to collaborate and standardize procedures and governance across bodies.
However, to advance Sustainable Cayman concerns, agencies must be willing to make adjustments to existing governance cultures.
Moreover, this must be supported by legislative changes, which, of course, require “political will” to start the process.
With regard to legislative changes, the following should be done:
- Amend the Public Authorities Act to remove the Cabinet’s power to appoint or remove agency board members. Instead, job descriptions for board positions (including chair) should be published and candidates should be interviewed by an independent governance committee for relevant positions.
- Remove the Cabinet’s power to set the terms of appointment of board members, including compensation
- Prohibit the power of Cabinet to authorize a minister to issue strategic policy direction directly to the boards of government agencies (this takes politics out of the equation and makes the public interest paramount)
- Give boards full authority over all aspects of agency administration (including hiring and firing employees at all levels and controlling their own revenues and budgets)
In my view, a complete (or nearly complete) detachment of government agencies from government would reflect true independence and allow government agencies to act in the best interest of the public.
With this in place, board members of government agencies could act and decide on matters without fear of political repercussions for not carrying out the wishes of a particular politician or the Cabinet. Whether or not the government considers such a theory, however, will be most indicative of the true position on the current mantra of independence and transparency.