PAC questions government’s inaction on social assistance programmes

A Public Accounts Committee meeting on Wednesday followed up on past committee recommendations that were not implemented.

Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, in a hearing on Wednesday, 22 Sept., has queried why government has not implemented a host of recommendations made by several of its reports.

The Office of the Auditor General released a follow-up report on recommendations made by the PAC in August. It found that government was generally slow in responding to most PAC reports and there was only limited progress on any of the suggestions made.

The lack of response to two auditor general’s reports on ‘Ensuring quality health care and a healthy population (2017)’ and ‘Government programmes supporting those in need (2015)’ was particularly egregious examples of government inaction.

The latter report recommended government develop a coordinated social assistance strategy; monitor the performance of the programmes; gather data on social assistance needs; set clear objectives; develop adequate legislation to pay benefits to seamen and ex-servicemen; amend the outdated Poor Persons (Relief) Act; develop regular eligibility assessments; and apply eligibility criteria consistently.

In a hearing that focussed on the follow-up to recommendations made to improve the provision of government’s social assistance programmes, the committee questioned both the responsible former chief officer Teresa Echenique and current chief officer Eric Bush.

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Asked by committee chairman Roy McTaggart why “not very much had been accomplished in almost six years since the report was first issued by the auditor general”, Echenique noted management changes in the ministry and the sensitivity of the subject area as the main reasons for the delay.

“We did not want to be hasty in making drastic changes to that organisation, without doing some very in-depth and thorough assessments,” she said.

Although an overarching strategic plan had not been finalised, many operational aspects were implemented to enhance the services provided by the Needs Assessment Unit and the Department of Children and Family Services.

Echenique said the legislative changes were the major driving factor, but they were also very broad and required the most input in terms of analysis and consultations. A draft bill and regulations had been passed on to the new chief officer.

Bush explained that the new administration for the past five months had taken stock of the “massive topic”, and categorised and structured the growing number of recommendations.

The ministry is now trying “to carve up this mammoth task into bite-sized chunks”, he said.

Three weeks ago, government formed a Social Development Strategic Planning Committee, chaired by Minister for Social Development André Ebanks, to “transform and strengthen the provision of comprehensive and sustainable social development services”, Bush said.

Updated legislation is going to be tested with various stakeholder focus groups, the chief officer said, and is slated to be presented to Parliament in the first quarter of 2022.

Senior policy adviser Stacie Sybersma said some of the improvements that are proposed in the draft bill are to mandate that able-bodied clients work, to define eligibility criteria, to formalise how someone is deemed permanently disabled, include stronger parameters around temporary unemployment, and to add more transparency around how services can be accessed and decisions appealed if the needs have not been met.

It is expected that the draft bill will be further amended before it is open for public consultation.

To monitor the effectiveness of programmes and gather data on the needs of the public, Echenique said some adjustments were made to an existing database but it became obvious that “the database was just not adequate”.

Even from a cost-saving perspective, it was recommended to move to a completely new database.

Bush said the funding for a new database would be included in the 2022/23 budget cycle.

The new system, to be designed by the e-government unit, would allow public agencies to communicate better with each other and simplify access to services.

“The direction in which we’re going is to truly leverage technology and try to enhance and simplify the user experience in making these applications and communicating generally with the departments,” Bush said.

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