Deputy Governor Franz Manderson has vowed that civil servants who feel pressured or bullied into allowing elected ministers to take the reins of day-to-day government operations will have his support in instances where they say “no.”
“Chief officers know that I have their back,” Mr. Manderson told the Legislative Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee Wednesday. “They know that if they feel pressured into doing things they don’t want to do that they can come to me.”
Mr. Manderson told the accounts committee, which was in the process of reviewing government actions in various land use agreements that the auditor general’s office had termed “unlawful,” that steps had been taken to ensure civil servants’ roles on public projects were clearly defined.
He said while it was the government workers’ job to follow policy direction of the elected officials, it was not the job of those elected to engage directly in the implementation of those projects.
“Civil servants can be put in a very difficult position, when politicians want to do things their way,” Mr. Manderson said. “It’s a culture change, it’s a role clarity change. People in most cases just want to get the project done. Let’s do it the right way.”
Reports from the Auditor General’s Office, released last year, contained examples of ministerial overreach involving certain public projects in connection with the government’s former Nation Building Fund and various public-private sector partnership agreements.
Mr. Manderson said he did not agree with former Auditor General Alastair Swarbrick’s use of the word “unlawful” in connection with the reports.
In the four-year operation of the former United Democratic Party government’s Nation Building Fund, for example, Mr. Swarbrick found that most of the program operation was done “outside the governance framework” when it doled out $13.2 million to churches, community programs and scholarships. Some of the payments represented legitimate public project expenses, auditors said, but they noted there was no formal process to apply for disbursements from the fund.
The report found former Premier McKeeva Bush and his former chief of staff Leonard Dilbert had directly approved certain payments from the Nation Building Fund, while civil service managers insisted they only “wrote the checks” the premier wanted them to. In many cases, the record-keeping attached to program disbursements was so poor auditors couldn’t tell what the money was spent on.
“Checks were being sent out on the basis of just an email,” Mr. Swarbrick said. “There’s likely some value from the payments that were made, but there’s no way to assess that.”
Mr. Swarbrick alleged that government acted unlawfully and “without proper authority” in signing two of the Cayman Islands largest-ever private sector development projects. The original National Roads Authority agreement, which paved the way for construction of the Kimpton hotel on Seven Mile Beach and permanent closure of a section of West Bay Road along Seven Mile Beach, was negotiated by elected ministers “without the knowledge or assistance of civil servants,” the audit office reported.
In the case of the agreement on Health City Cayman Islands, often referred to locally as the “Shetty Hospital” after its founder Dr. Devi Shetty, auditors stated: “No approval from the Legislative Assembly was sought, even though the agreement committed government to hundreds of millions of dollars in tax, duty and fee concessions and contained obligations for infrastructure upgrading and expenditure.”
Although he disagreed with the term “unlawful,” Mr. Manderson essentially confirmed the auditor’s assertions on Wednesday.
“How could things get to that point?” George Town MLA Roy McTaggart asked. “What happened here?”
Mr. Manderson said the efforts represented a government “wanting to get things done.” However, specific negotiations on the deal should have been led by civil servants, he said. He also added that it was “unfair” to blame civil servants for “secret” negotiations taking place that they knew nothing about.
“It’s incumbent on the civil servants to put their foot down and say … I’m not comfortable with this,” Mr. Manderson said. “In some cases, this didn’t happen.”
George Town MLA Winston Connolly, putting quibbling over the wording of the auditor’s report aside, questioned whether anyone would be held accountable for these issues.
“Politicians are held to account by the premier and the public,” Mr. Manderson said. “On the civil service side, that is my responsibility.”
Public Accounts Committee Chairman Ezzard Miller asked whether the civil service would then take the blame – rather than politicians – if the implementation of a project “goes bad.”
“I accept that, sir,” Mr. Manderson said.