Turn your strident words into action, madame president

Published on Wired868.com Monday 4 January 2021 

A little more than 33 months ago, before Ms Paula-Mae Weeks was elected president of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, she was at the top of her game serving in another jurisdiction.  

Today she is publicly expressing her disappointment at the absence of good governance for the people of Trinidad and Tobago, and runs the risk of being yet another complainer using her office as a soapbox.  

Photo: President Paula-Mae Weekes.
(via Office of the President)

The tone and mood of the New Year’s message to the people of Trinidad and Tobago from our president came as no surprise to me. The president has on several other occasions had some harsh comments to make to members of parliament. Indeed, the sobriquet ‘Auntie-Tantie’ was given to her because of such a tendency.

Recall her address to the Twelfth Parliament, when she asked:

“Can we trust you? I am asking for a friend. Or more precisely, firstly, for the roughly 658,000 citizens who on August the 10th did their civic duty, hoping that you prove ready, willing and able to ensure their security, prosperity and future, as well as for the rest of the population. 

“Honourable members, can we trust you to discharge your functions in accordance with your oath?”  

This was a poignant question and indicated a serious cause for concern which has continued.

Some may react by suggesting that the president has her own responsibilities to take care of, and until her house is in order she should shut up. Others may comment that since the role is merely ceremonial, she should just go with the flow.  

Photo: President Paula-Mae Weekes walks the red carpet at the re-opening of the Red House in Port of Spain.
(Courtesy Office of the President)

The point is that until the office is removed, the office holder has a responsibility not only to express areas of disenchantment but also to suggest some solutions—and this is where I take issue with the continued bouffing.

The fact that the president continues to speak publicly about the shortcomings of the government is worrisome. It indicates to me that she may have either given up on finding solutions, or she has been worn down by the systems and processes which are archaic and unproductive. 

Is it that the systems and structures through which she can engage in meaningful dialogue are not functioning? If so, why are they not functioning? Is it that the president has thus far expressed her views to no avail? 

Section 81 of the Constitution states that: ‘the prime minister shall keep the president fully informed concerning the general conduct of the Government of Trinidad and Tobago’. Is it that Section 81 is being ignored?

Photo: President Paula-Mae Weekes (right) is applauded by Prime Minister Keith Rowley (centre) as Chief Justice Ivor Archie looks on.
(Courtesy Office of the President)

Whatever the reason, here is an opportunity for the president to work tirelessly to ensure that the systems and processes are re-designed to ensure positive collaboration.

The first step towards implementing meaningful change is awareness, and her continued articulation of her discomfort tells me that she is aware of some of the problems. What is needed now is the development and implementation of a strategy to resolve the problem.

I suggest that madame president takes counsel in her own words and: ‘with urgency have those national conversations followed by the necessary action’ with the members of parliament whom she swore in, just five months ago.  

To do otherwise her statement as follows will become our reality: ‘although from today the dates on our diaries and cheques read 2021, we will still be haunted by the ghosts of 2020’.

Don’t blame public servants for everything; leadership is taking responsibility.

It is easy to blame public servants’ ‘mistakes’ for an eight-month delay in appointing the Board of the Trinidad and Tobago Securities and Exchange Commission (TTSEC) as reported in a recent newspaper article. 

Public servants have become the most recent whipping horse of a government whose inaction contributes to the poor quality performance of the public service. Between 2015 and today, there is no discernible improvement in service delivery at our government offices.

Photo: Minister of Finance Colm Imbert.
(Copyright Office of the Parliament 2020)

As an aside, I recently tried to make an appointment with the Companies Registry and discovered that there is a difference between ‘unavailable, not available and not yet available’. The result is that I cannot make an online appointment for the foreseeable future.  

This is not simply Public Service inefficiency, it is an example of systemic failure.  If you take a poor analog system and put it online, it will result in a worse online system.

Our systems are crumbling and there is no clear indication of when and how they will be re-designed or improved. There is a lot of chatter about digital transformation but specific attention must be paid to the people who will continue to underpin the systemic changes upon which we must embark.

Public blaming and shaming of the public servants is actually counterproductive and will not inspire people to make their best contribution. Instead of blaming, leaders must take responsibility and reflect on the role they played—in what was, in this case, an eight-month delay.  

Image: The Trinidad and Tobago Securities and Exchange Commission (TTSEC) logo.

Oftentimes, it is not the public servant to be blamed, but the leaders who still believe in command-and-control as an appropriate leadership strategy and refuse to allow public servants to get on with the job as best as they can.

The public blaming and shaming simply communicated the mindset of the Minister of Finance and underlined his disrespect for the public servants who have to continue to turn up and try to do their best, while cognisant of his disdain for them. 

It is standard operating procedure for a file to have been created which tracks how this eight-month delay occurred. It would be useful to use that file as a case study to improve the system rather than using the whip in an attempt to change behaviour.

Public servants are the link between the government and the public. Without them, the government absolutely cannot function

No minister can handle all the work generated by their mission. Capable people must act as buffers and translators between the public and any minister. So public servants must be led in a manner that facilitates productivity and goal attainment.

Photo: Minister of Finance Colm Imbert (centre) poses with the Central Bank Board in February 2019.

Effective leaders accept responsibility for the decisions and outcomes of their organisation. It is time for our leaders to stop the blame game and begin to nurture a culture of taking responsibility and being accountable; but it begins with them demonstrating their willingness to be accountable and transparent.  

Just as the leader is smug and boastful when there is success, he/she must step up to the plate and accept that the buck stops with them.  

The 33rd president of the United States, Harry S Truman, is credited with a desk sign that read “The buck stops here”, which was his motto.  

Our current politicians would be well advised to embrace that notion and take full responsibility, especially when things go wrong, instead of blaming others.

Demming Chronicles chats with IT Strategist Tracy Hackshaw and Advertising Specialist Mark White.

Demming Chronicles chats Tracy Hackshaw who has been involved in the ICT sphere for more than 20 years. He works towards driving transformation to help our country become more competetive in the digital economy. This wide ranging discussion included governance, service delivery, oversight and accountability. He commented about our insecurity with regard to a single approach to internet connectivity and the risk that poses. The conversation continued with Mark White whose experience as an owner of an Advertising Agency informed his conclusion that Advertising Agencies are significantly at risk for their survival. He also noted that over the past 10 years, the industry has experienced rapid transformation and that Covid 19 was in fact an accelerant rather than a game changer. To quote him: “people are looking for depth in a phrase”.

Demming Chronicles chats with Karen Tesheira, and Lara Quentrall Thomas, on the state of play in T&T.

Former Minister Tesheira commends citizens of Trinidad and Tobago for their continued commitment to maintaining peace despite difficult economic circumstances. She also commented that the irony of Covid 19 is that it saved the current government from what was predicted to be an electoral defeat based on their poor handling of the economy. The conversation with Lara Quentrall-Thomas focused on good governance, transparency, accountability and value for money for the citizens. She commented that good governance applies at all levels of the society and that citizens too have a responsibility to hold themselves to the highest ethical standards.

Government repeating mistakes with procurement!

I grew up hearing an anecdote that the late former member of parliament for Diego Martin West, Johnny O’Halloran, and a contingent went to Venezuela to negotiate the purchase of a boat, and the only member of the contingent who could translate Spanish into English was the cook. 

So, the entire contingent relied on the cook to translate the details of this high-powered negotiation. It is a story about how ministers and high-powered officials operate outside of their areas of competence and squander our patrimony.

Photo: Coast guard vessel.

This memory was triggered by recent reports about the three moored coast guard vessels and why they have not been repaired. The minister of national security used Covid-19 as his get-out-of-jail card, suggesting travel restrictions were to blame. Meanwhile, the Dutch ambassador immediately advised that repair engineers have been in the country on rotation.

If the current administration has not ensured the operationalisation of a maintenance and repair programme for the coast guard since winning the general elections in 2015, what can be done now to solve the problem?

It is reasonable to expect that given our historically porous borders, ensuring our coast guard had the marine assets to operate would have been a high priority issue, resulting in an assessment of our naval assets and a plan put in place to keep them in good repair. 

For three vessels to be down at the same time is an example of malfeasance. It is understandable that these vessels may require specialist services for their repair, but over five years, we should have been able to train technicians on the ground to keep at least one vessel in operation.  

I wonder about the post-purchase arrangements that were made with regard to these vessels. Had this sale been conducted under proper procurement arrangements, citizens could have accessed the contract and understood where the breakdown in arrangements occurred.

Photo: Minister of National Security Stuart Young.
(Copyright Office of the Parliament 2020)

Recently in parliament, Hon. Minister Stuart Young reminded the population that the United National Congress (UNC) acquired “six Damen vessels and the procurement of those vessels is now under international criminal investigation by the government of the Netherlands”.

While the government is right to pursue this investigation, our borders continue to be open to drugs, guns and all kinds of illegal trafficking because we cannot repair three coast guard vessels. What is the status of the other three Damen vessels?

What is the status of the highly sophisticated 360-degree radar system, which is touted to be able to scan the Gulf of Paria and identify the minutest of movements? I am told that our country is one of 10 with such a sophisticated system, but it was never made operational. I wonder why?

Administration after administration, the same mistakes are repeated. We find ways to sidestep proper procurement and believe that ministers and other high-powered officials can operate outside of their areas of competence in whatever domain their leaders see fit.

We continue to operate without appropriate strategic plans, so we end up with graveyards of abandoned police vehicles, buses, fire trucks and marine vessels. How well some of us remember the MV Tobago was sold for scrap and is now providing excellent service in the Mediterranean.

Photo: Wrecked TTPS police cars.

It is easy to blame previous administrations for negotiating bad contracts or other unacceptable arrangements, but after five years in office, those arguments ring hollow in my head. The time has come for us to have a strategic plan that pays attention to maintenance, repair and continuity. The less money we waste, the more will be available to invest in the development of our people and, therefore, secure our future.

The more often our politicians are caught telling shades of untruths, the greater the level of mistrust amongst the population. One day, the population will rise up and say enough is enough. Be warned!

Of porous boarders and Venezuelan babies …

Our history records Trinidad and Tobago’s fisherfolk dodging bullets from or being arrested by Venezuela’s Guardia Nacional for supposedly being in Venezuelan waters. Today we continue to metaphorically dodge different kinds of bullets from our Venezuelan neighbours.

For years, the back-and-forth confrontational posturing was a trickle—the fisherfolk dispute, or the occasional Venezuelan found illegally in T&T. Then came the sustained deluge of illegal Venezuelans seeking a better life.

Photo: Venezuelans continue to stream out of their country in search of better lives.

The most recent ‘bullets’ include the jitters caused some weeks ago by the potential environmental hazard posed by the tilting oil tanker, the Nabarima.

This week, it is the mistreatment of Venezuelan children, both on land and sea.  Unless specific action is taken to manage our open borders, it is only a matter of time before Trinidad and Tobago is featured globally in some emblematic photograph of a cross-border disaster involving our Venezuelan neighbours.

Remember the pictures of Kim Phuc the naked 9-year old fleeing the Napalm attack in Vietnam on 8 June 1972? Or the little Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, drowned on a beach in Turkey on 2 September of 2015 while trying to reach shore?  

These are not alarmist notions but warnings of possibilities, even as the Minister of National Security claims that the law says they are ‘undesirables’.

There is no question about our inability to absorb unchecked Venezuelan migration but it will continue to happen until our borders are policed and managed, and infrastructure and regulations for humane treatment of refugees and migrants are implemented.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley (right) and Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro shake hands during a joint press conference in Port of Spain on 23 May 2016.
(Copyright Alva Viarruel/AFP 2016/Wired868)

We did well to regularise 15,000 Venezuelan neighbours and it is almost time for their revalidation. But we are not doing well with the treatment of the estimated 16 Venezuelan children whom we have shunted from prison cells to pirogue onto the ocean and then back again. 

Even in times of war, there is a commitment to protect the children unless you have ‘Trumpian’ tendencies and feel no empathy for caged children. In the midst of this, the minister of national security was allegedly unaware of the decision to escort a pirogue filled with children (one of whom was just 4 months old)—in the absence of their parents or guardians—into the open sea.

In a completely different aspect of law and order, the population is yet to receive a reasonable explanation of what happened with the DSS (Drug Sou Sou) money which was shunted from the home of the owner to the police station and back again. The common pattern in these two very different incidents is that either there is no rule book or the rules are not being followed.

Either way, it is time for action to be taken. But first we must admit that we are presiding over deep systemic failure of our institutions. It is from this recognition that things are falling apart that we may find the window of opportunity to redesign our systems and re-imagine a different future.

Photo: National Security Minister Stuart Young (left) gets Police Commissioner Gary Griffith (centre) and half the force to help him find his section in Tribe.
(Copyright TTPS)

The anecdotal evidence is that we are generally welcoming the Venezuelans and trying to accommodate them as fellow human beings.  Many are being absorbed because their work ethic is superior to ours, although others have become collateral damage and players in our fast expanding underworld.

The country is at crisis level with the influx of Venezuelans, drugs and guns through our porous borders. 

If a solution is not implemented soon it will be a matter of time before a humanitarian disaster catapults us onto the world stage in unfortunate ways.

Derek Chin and Lisa Sarjeant-Gonzales on Demming Chronicles.

Demming Chronicles chats with entrepreneur and business visionary Derek Chin as well as artist entrepreneur Lisa Sarjeant Gonzales, the inspiration behind Lisa Faye Designs. Derek shares his thoughts about how Covid 19 has caused him some concern and how his family business has been able to develop a new line of pre-cooked meals. He asks the provocative question: What do I need to do to get you to leave your home for entertainment? Lisa Faye talks about her line of wearable art and hand painted silk garments. She shares her vision for the creation of a hub where artists can set up their manufacturing spaces and comments that e-commerce platforms need be more affordable for business owners.

Transforming a ‘toilet’: POS rejuvenation must also address social problems

After 58 years of leadership in both parliamentary and mayoral elections, and 16 or 17 development plans, it has been decreed that the city of Port of Spain will finally be transformed into a shiny new metropolis in north Trinidad. It is a welcomed announcement, but like other similar declarations, some of us will adopt a wait-and-see attitude as the plans unfold.

Indeed, my heart sank when in quick succession it was announced that the government had big plans for the rejuvenation of Port of Spain while simultaneously declaring Queen Janelle Commissiong Street as ‘the toilet of the capital’.

Photo: Downtown Port of Spain, Trinidad.

This juxtaposition encapsulated the core of the problem, which is that you can have whatever plans, but the reality is that our people defecate on the streets and force us all to wallow in the stench. We are yet to explore the root causes of homelessness, crime and underperformance especially amongst the urban youth of African descent, many of whom roam the streets of our capital.

Have we invested in understanding what accounts for the proximity of squalor to the city centre? Alongside the plans for the new glistening buildings must be the programmes for the social transformation of our people. New buildings and structures alone will not solve the defecation problem.

Many years have elapsed since the days when I walked safely to the taxi stand at the corner of Nelson and Prince Streets or when I walked up to Jackson Place to Laventille Road and felt confident that no harm would visit me. Between those years of the early 70s and now, our people have lost our way, presided over by post-independence governments that believe concrete and steel will solve our problems and transform our people.

Transforming Port of Spain and indeed Trinidad and Tobago is not simply a matter of the nightly washing of streets—even though public health is important—nor the forced acquisition of properties to make space for the monied class. Gaining the trust of the two-thirds of the citizens who did not vote for the current PNM government will take inspired leadership, negotiation and diplomacy.

Photo: A homeless man in San Fernando tries to get by during the Covid-19 pandemic.
(Copyright Ghansham Mohammed/GhanShyam Photography/Wired868)

In the Port of Spain South constituency, there is only so much bulldozing that you can do before the wall of 16,000 persons who either voted against the PNM or did not vote unite around a common cause and stick a pin in the plans. The biggest challenge this dream faces is how to move from a plan to an implementation strategy which engages the imagination of our people.

If the senatorial rantings that the contract has been signed and awarded since 2017 are true, then the government has once again sidestepped the Office of Procurement Regulation. With the low level of electoral support, there is a greater need for transparency to allow the population to understand the who, what and how of this mega transaction.

The two pillars for the success of a re-imagined Port of Spain are transparency and accountability that the investment is fair and equitable, and the engagement of those long-standing property owners and occupiers who have neither the resources nor the know-how to navigate this ever-changing landscape.

Demming Chronicles chats with Prof Patrick Watson, Bene Caribe’s founder Abby Charles and Creative Consultant Dave Williams.

Professor Watson rates T&T’s performance with regard to governance and comments on our approaches to diversifying the economy. Abby Charles comments on her entrepreneurial journey as Bene Caribe uses fashion to create a social enterprise which is sustainable and value adding. Creative Consultant Dave Williams discusses the arts and sciences as centres of innovation for building a more inclusive society.