Kristen Gyles | Way forward for statutory declarations
Once upon a time, Jamaica had a ‘Commission for the Prevention of Corruption’, and presumably, its job was to help prevent corruption. One of the core activities of the commission was to collect statutory declarations from public officials and investigate them. It therefore wouldn’t be too reckless to assume that the purpose for which public officials were and still are required to file statutory declarations is for the prevention of corruption.
Well, the Commission for the Prevention of Corruption is no more, and now the Integrity Commission (IC) executes this corruption-prevention function by presiding over the collection of statutory declarations. Although the organisation has changed, nothing has changed about the declarations required, so the IC is doing just what its predecessor did, which was to keep tabs on public officials who are not only paid from public funds but who, by virtue of their professional roles, have the capacity to influence the use of public funds. And all this to the end of preventing corruption.
How well is that goal being achieved?
The IC’s Director of Information and Complaints noted recently, in an Integrity Commission Oversight Committee meeting, that since the organisation’s inception, over 200,000 statutory declarations were filed and of that number, just over 1,000 declarations have been examined. To state it plainly, the IC is struggling. Less than one per cent of statutory declarations ever filed with the IC have been examined.
The director’s presentation also highlighted that over 40,000 people are required to file annually. But who are these over 40,000 people? Of course, parliamentarians, heads of government agencies, judges and other persons occupying sensitive public offices would understandably need to bear some scrutiny in the execution of their roles. But why are clerical staff of government agencies, some of whom have no capacity to influence the movement of government funds, being asked to file statutory declarations every year?
First, what a waste of time ... If I were an employee of the IC, I would be a little less than enthusiastic to spend day after day wading through countless filings belonging to public servants, who don’t even have much of a capacity to engage in corruption at work anyway. Currently, all parliamentarians and public officials are required to submit statutory declarations to the IC, once their earnings surpass the threshold of $3.5 million. Realistically speaking, the IC does not need to be chasing after working-class public servants to interrogate the cause of a $200,000 discrepancy between their earnings and declared assets. At that rate, the IC will never get to the point of uncovering true instances of intentional and deliberate corruption.
For context, corruption, as defined by the IC, is “the misuse of one’s office for private gain, for the benefit of the holder of the office or some third party”. Numerous classes of public sector workers who are required to submit statutory declarations have no capacity to misuse their office for any material private gain.
The other question we should be trying to answer is whether declarants even take these filings seriously. Of the 40,347 persons required to file in 2021, only 29,207 submitted statutory declarations. The compliance rate here could and should be better for a government agency tasked with stamping out corruption. But if the IC lacks the resources to review the declarations submitted, how will they find the resources to chase after the declarations not submitted?
ZERO TOLERANCE POLICY
Interestingly, in early 2021, the IC started enforcing its Zero Tolerance Policy, which was to emphasise that non-compliance may attract a fine of up to $500,000 or a term of imprisonment of up to six months. But before you can fine or imprison them, you have to identify them, huh?
The solution as proposed by the IC, to move to a position-based model for determining those who should submit statutory declarations, is spot on. The IC would do well to move to a risk-based system that identifies the most high-impact public offices.
The IC has also suggested that in the short term the threshold should be increased from its current $3.5 million to $12 million, pending an eventual shift to a long-term plan of identifying sensitive positions and asking those occupying those positions to file. If there needs to be a short term, then sure. But does there need to be? How much a person earns is neither here nor there if their position doesn’t make them particularly susceptible to corruption. The focus should be on identifying sensitive, high-risk positions within the public sector and asking the holders of those positions to file.
The other issue is that while the IC has produced educational material to help declarants through the process of putting together their submissions, it must admit that the process is tedious and laborious, and the declarant is often left unsure about the soundness of their filing even after submitting. The prescribed declaration document solicits information relating to the assets, liabilities and income of the declarant, as well as that of their spouse and children, whether held locally or overseas. It is a lot, and frankly, a public servant who omits a relevant detail or fails to correctly complete a given section of the document may very well do so unintentionally.
Ideally, we want to simplify the process while getting the necessary information from the right people.
Kristen Gyles is a free-thinking public affairs opinionator. Send feedback to email@example.com.