Arnold Piggott's appearance before Parliament’s Joint Select Committee on State Enterprises marks an important precedent which bodes well for governance and accountability. At the same time, his testimony provided a frightening glimpse of the challenge posed by corruption. If a former chairman of a State enterprise can openly admit to being helpless when it comes to tackling graft in the organisation he once led, what hope can we have?
Perhaps Piggott’s experience at the Education Facilities Company Ltd left him jaded. But that was never a good reason to decline the Parliament’s invitation to attend the committee, as he initially did. Still, better late than never.
And his appearance could not have come too soon. Piggott painted a disturbing picture of lower-level officials with political connections pulling clout, of gross breaches of tendering practices, and of the board’s loss of faith in key personnel.
While these matters came after the 2015 general election, Piggott also claimed to have unearthed evidence of serious fraudulent activity under the People’s Partnership.
All of it points to one fact: no matter who is in power, the problem of corruption persists because it affects all levels of State enterprises.
Lower-level functionaries are just as crucial in the battle against sleaze as higher-level officials. If corruption is not tackled at all layers, it simply carries over from one administration to another.
The State must take steps to shore up the State enterprises manual which governs procurement practices. It must also implement procurement reform. While it is important for the Public Service to be ready to implement the new rules, it is no longer palatable to justify delay citing their unreadiness. Piggott’s testimony demonstrates the urgency of the matter.
Piggott, a PNM politician, should be praised for his forthrightness. He has risked his status within his party in order to shine a light on a matter that should not be dictated by the demands of petty politics. Whether PNM or UNC, all public officials have a duty to defend the national interest. This means bringing to light matters that were obscure under previous regimes, as well as being accountable for current malpractice.
In this regard, the parliamentary committee system, with its non-partisan orientation, has proven a most useful watchdog. While there is some debate over the powers of these committees, they are nonetheless shining a light on matters that have for too long been hidden.
Going forward, the Government must stick to its pledge to address corruption. It must furthermore reform the way State enterprises are working. No person who has come forward to serve on a State board should ever have to make Piggott’s lament.