Home » Where is public accountability? by P. Neerohoo, Tax specialist

Where is public accountability? by P. Neerohoo, Tax specialist

The Prime Minister claimed he did not know about the contract for the supply of one million tablets of an anti-Covid drug at Rs 80 million amid allegations of over-invoicing and unsolicited bid from the supplier. The Minister of Health said he was not involved in the procurement process.

Therefore, the logical inference is that public officials are responsible for the award of the contract. However, in our parliamentary system of government, the Minister of Health is ultimately accountable for the decisions and actions of his staff and advisers. Delegation of powers to public officials does not absolve political decision-makers of responsibility. 

If public officials did not inform or consult with the Minister of Health about the contract prior to awarding it, there is a major breakdown in the chain of command. Public officials are accountable for their deeds because they are trusted with the stewardship of public funds. 

Suspending some officials involved in dubious procurement with pay or allowing others to retire with a pension does not free them from liability and eventual prosecution if a prima facie case can be made against them. The ICAC has started an enquiry. Let’s hope it will carry through the task to a successful conclusion in a relatively short time and refer the matter to the DPP for any prosecution.

The law should be amended to allow the suspension of public officials without pay and the retirement of public officials without pension until the investigation and judicial process are over. If the investigative body or the Court eventually clears them of wrongdoing, they may get a backpay from the time of suspension or retirement. Under the rule of law, anybody is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

As in other countries, Parliament should pass a Public Service Act (PSA) to prescribe rules for addressing conflicts of interest and other egregious behavior from public officials. It is necessary to prevent such abuses from happening in the first place. The anti-corruption law applies after the fact but only if it is enforced effectively. The PSA would spell out clear guidelines in terms of delegation of authority to officials and would draw the boundaries between political decision-making and administrative decision-making. 

Furthermore, it is necessary to introduce non-compete clauses in the employment contract of senior officials to prevent them from acting as consultants for government’s suppliers when they retire and from lobbying the government on behalf of their clients. Insider information is accessible to bidders when officials and lobbyists are in cahoots to rig the procurement system.

As a matter of policy, ministries and parastatal bodies should contract with vendors of record for emergency procurement and must not have recourse to fly-by-night operators who are out there to make a quick buck. Vendors of record have established credentials and a compliance history, and they are more reliable.