FINANCE BY DAVID WALKER ACCOUNTANT & DATABASE EXPERT
Earlier this week there was an announcement that I suspect was welcomed by every citizen of this nation with very few exceptions. I was certainly delighted to hear of charges being laid at long last against a slew of operatives at the Licensing Office alongside a number of business persons. Even politicians have spoken openly down the years (or is it decades) about the rampant corruption at that institution. Yet it continued unabated.
Just last week I spoke about our need to take action against the white-collar criminality parading in front of our noses. I was speaking then about matters disclosed about the “rescue “of CLICO and CL Financial. Those disclosures came from two impeccable sources – the Canadian Institute of Actuaries and a sitting judge in T&T. They pointed to false accounting by the government and probable overpayments to unnamed parties. I lamented the lack of even a statement from either major political party. I expressed the hope that relevant authorities were following up on the disclosures even if they felt unable to share such information with the public at this stage.
This announcement about developments at the Licensing Office are therefore to be applauded lustily. I have my own personal experience of corruption there through simple observations while going about routine business. Those who deal with that agency on a regular basis can surely provide quite a list of suspect activities, a fabulous starting point in any effort to weed out such wrongdoing.
But that is apparently not the route through which these particular miscreants were found. I was surprised to hear that the files which gave rise to the investigation emanated from a routine operation at Licensing, and not a new and special investigation by the authorities.
The Minister of Works and Transport, Mr. Rohan Sinanan shared the news that the files of suspect activities and the perpetrators were assembled in the first instance as a by-product of another welcome activity. He explained that the department had undergone a comprehensive computerisation exercise over the preceding three years. It is this exercise which identified the persons and activities now under scrutiny.
The need for wholesale conversion of manual records to electronic format to fight corruption
This episode highlights the value of high-quality data management. When data is held in electronic format there is little that can be hidden from expert data managers and analysts. We have the ability to find the proverbial “needle in a haystack” with effective use of database technology and an understanding of the shape of the data that is held.
A major step by anyone serious about addressing white collar crime must therefore be the wholesale conversion of manual records to electronic format in all areas of government. Given the scale of corruption in T&T, such an initiative should pay for itself several times over if properly targeted. The targeting itself will become more accurate and sophisticated as analysis and understanding of the data progresses.
I have advocated, and I advocate once again, the allocation of a sum in the order of 50 million dollars annually for the next five years to be applied towards the rapid absorption of our manual records into an electronic database that not only offers powerful search facilities but facilitates the integration of hitherto incompatible data repositories.
Such an investment pays for itself in a short time with greater certainty than any other government investment on the table currently. As shown by the Licensing experience, the computerisation effort inevitably results in greatly improved service to clients of the department. I can relate my own experience of a permit renewal that took just two hours a couple of months ago. I’m sure we all remember having to allocate entire days for the exercise just recently. That also translates into a more efficient workforce and national productivity.
A budget for such a purpose should be built upon and encourage the creation of a policy with regard to the computerisation of our government records. Within that policy framework, a dozen or so projects can be started annually. Existing projects can benefit from the policies and expertise that will flow from the exercise.
All our political parties pay lip service to computerisation
All our political parties pay lip service to computerisation in general and data driven decision making in particular. None of this can bear fruit if ninety percent of government data is locked up in files in the back of some dusty and damp office with loss and deterioration an ever-present risk. If we valued that data, we would implement a strategy for its absorption into an electronic system immediately. Excuses about inability to find documents needed for audits and accountability should be a thing of the past.
Moreover, such an exercise is well within the capacity of local database experts. We do not have to resort to the usual expensive overseas consultants and providers. In fact, it would be my preference that this work be undertaken by locals as a matter of policy with limited exceptions where there is a proven need. Besides all of the benefits already alluded to, such a policy would be a powerful incentive to local experts to develop systems and expertise that likely would be relevant to other small economies that frankly are not well served by the international majors that we, and they, instinctively turn to.
Licensing and the Ministry of Works and Transport have confirmed the need for, and many benefits of, a large and holistic computerisation and data management effort across the entire range of services offered by government viz:-
• Improved service delivery
• Highlighting of suspect white-collar crime activities
• Rapid generation of evidence (files for possible legal action)
• Reduction of costs and FX through use of local expertise
• Development of expertise and systems with possible export potential
• Massive improvement in accountability
• Elimination of a major cause for lack of successful audits
It is time to show confidence in our own
Between the Ministry, TTPS and the relevant authorities, we have been given very good news. I unreservedly thank them. I also want to thank the Ministry in particular for pointing the way with evidence supporting my perennial argument that data and its capture and management comprise the key for unlocking the evidence of white-collar crime that has remained hidden for far too
My proposal to take this to the next level amplifies and builds upon those benefits. It is well past time that we support and encourage our own developers rather than simply relying upon expensive outsiders to come and populate our equally expensive tech parks. It is time to start showing confidence in our own. Add to the benefits described above, the rapid growth of a local database capability that not only replaces expensive foreign expertise but generates significant export potential.
Have we seen the light now shining brightly at Licensing and TTPS?
The author David Walker is well known to our readers as an accountant and finance expert. This article stems from the fact that he is also an internationally acclaimed database expert especially with regard to financial and accounting data. He has designed and developed database systems for some of the world’s largest corporations including Natwest Bank (UK), Nationwide Anglia Building Society (UK) and G E Capital (US).