A START AGAINST WHITE-COLLAR CRIME

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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
long.
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?

EDITOR’S NOTE:
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).