To survive… CARIBBEAN ECONOMIES NEED TO BE CREATIVE

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FINANCE BY DAVID WALKER ACCOUNTANT & DATABASE EXPERT

Internationally, govern­ments are extending the range of reports that they make available to stakehold­ers, especially online, at a fre­netic pace. Many countries have also been moving rapidly to enact the decision to apply Accruals based accounting principles not just to Financial Recording, but also to Finan­cial Reporting. It is inevitable that Caribbean countries will follow these trends.

There is little doubt about the push by Caribbean governments to follow in the slipstream of our developed neighbours. Further­more, crises in the world econo­my have highlighted the need for a more consistent and interlock­ing financial regulatory frame­work that must inevitably mean more consistent and standardized financial reporting among partic­ipating countries. This latter fact, more than anything emanating from within the Caribbean will determine the pace of develop­ment of modern, IT-based Finan­cial Reporting across the region.
Our work has led us to an as­sessment of the major challenges facing those who deliver Finan­cial Reporting in the Public Sec­tor in the Caribbean. Many of those challenges are shared with the Public sector in every other nation, while some are unique to developing states, particularly in the Caribbean. Listed in this sec­tion are the most notable of those challenges that emerged from our work.
Besides the key findings as stated below, there emerged a somewhat unconventional solu­tion to meeting the challenges that are unique to small develop­ing countries. This presents an opportunity and a challenge that is documented in the final section of this paper.
Here are the major challenges faced today in Financial Report­ing in the Public Sector in the Caribbean:

Cash vs. Accruals

Moving from Cash to Accruals based Financial Recording and Reporting is a monumental task. Making the switch will take time and the more forward-looking governments have adopted an incremental approach in order to reduce the stress on the work­ers who have to implement new systems while still operating the old one.
With a desire to conform to internationally agreed standards, most governments are pressing ahead with the necessary changes both with and without an IT el­ement. This is a daunting task, where they are attempting to match the reporting standards of countries that have been using IT for this purpose for more than a decade.

Improved Recording to match reporting imperatives

It must be understood that Fi­nancial Reporting can only be as good as the Financial Recording systems that gather the data upon which the reports are based. If for example, financial data is re­corded only for Cash Accounting purposes, it is impossible to ret­roactively fit an Accruals based report system onto it.
Financial Recording defines the boundaries of what is pos­sible in Financial Reporting. Considerable attention must be paid to it if governments are to ensure that they are able to meet the myriad reporting demands described earlier.

“Developed Country” solutions not appropriate

Almost every government in the Caribbean has selected Fi­nancial Recording and Reporting systems based on what works in developed countries. What has been found is that in many cases these solutions are not appropri­ate for a number of reasons.
Most of the solutions are “big ticket” items designed for large organizations. For the most part, they dictate the way functions are to be performed and therefore drive a transformation process of the Public Sector based not on what’s best for each country but rather on how the software prod­uct works. They frequently dic­tate process flows that in no way reflect the work practices of the host country.
There is now an imperative to find or build solutions that are more reflective of the host coun­try. Consideration is now being given to the notion of letting the local transformation process drive software selection and de­velopment to a much greater de­gree. This will not be easy with the existing propensity for con­sultants from developed coun­tries who naturally recommend systems that they already know.
It’s uncertain whether Carib­bean states have the local ex­pertise to design and develop their unique systems. In the short term, the best option looks like being a “marriage” of foreign consultants and local process ex­perts, working together to design and deliver the unique solutions that would achieve the reporting standards that stakeholders de­mand in a way that reflects local peculiarities.

Need for improved local technological expertise

It was suggested above that a lack of local expertise might sty­mie efforts to deliver world-class Financial Reporting in the Pub­lic sector in the Caribbean. It is therefore high on the agenda of local governments to increase the pool of expertise at their dispos­al. The expertise to be acquired falls into three main categories –
• Technical
• Process
• Documentation and Training
Technical experts design, build and maintain systems. Process experts work with the technical experts to map existing or ideal­ized processes to software solu­tions. Documentation and Train­ing experts develop the material to support workers in using the systems and deliver training to develop their competence in the use of those systems.

Challenges

Having recognised that Finan­cial Reporting in the Public Sec­tor in the Caribbean lags a few years behind that which exists in the developed world, and that experience tells us repeatedly that their solutions are expensive misfits in our context, we should now recognise an opportunity to do something truly novel in the developing world.
Our challenge is to develop a radical alternative to the whole­sale reproduction of systems de­signed several years ago in very different circumstances. Our challenge is to develop systems from the ground up that cater to the peculiar circumstances of small post-Colonial, developing states. Our challenge is to inno­vate and to lead.
The Caribbean diaspora boasts many eminent, highly regarded IT professionals. Largely, these people work at the cutting edge of IT develop­ment in the developed world. The challenge and the opportu­nity have now been defined that would offer a platform to these citizens of our nations to bring their expertise home to the ben­efit of their mother countries. Of course, such an ambitious project should also embrace the best minds that the Caribbean can afford, regardless of nation­ality.
But the opportunity does not end there. Around the world, there are many nations who bear similar characteristics to us. They are also struggling with the cost and complexity of im­plementing inappropriate solu­tions to their Financial Report­ing needs. There is the promise of a wide global market if we can successfully develop and deploy idealized solutions for small, post-Colonial states or any developing states that seek modern Public Sector recording and reporting tools at moderate cost with less complex imple­mentation procedures than that which is offered by developed countries presently.
We also face a challenge to monitor the design, delivery and operation of these new systems more effectively than in the past. Towards that end, we propose that parliamentary oversight of the financial re­ported regime be included as a key part of that regime.
The challenges are daunting but offer an opportunity to in­novate and lead.
They also herald the pros­pect of better utilization of the regions limited financial re­sources through more timely and accurate access to financial reports.