The right direction for Trinidad and Tobago – Part 2

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The TTWhistleblower continues a series of policy proposals which amount to an alternative budget for 2018 and beyond to forward a strategic direction for Trinidad and Tobago, for the good of all people of this country.

In Part 1, we explored the broad issues affecting Trinidad and Tobago and the course that must be set so that the right policies can drive growth, economic expansion, a better quality of life and sustainability.

Today in Part 2 we look at economic recovery, manage the Energy Sector, reform the Public Service and approach expenditure audits and Public Sector Investment.

While these proposals are not the exact prescription, it is hoped that the input of readers can help to make this the manifesto of our country’s future.

ECONOMIC RECOVERY

Having already established the current major macro-economic challenges facing the people and economy of Trinidad and Tobago, we must look towards a plan for the short term for careful and sustainable economic recovery.

Economic recovery should be based on achieving a hardworking, successful, property owning, confident and free society not built on welfare and State control, but built on a State ensuring all the resources are available to make every young man and woman  and every family confident that he or she is equally capable of taking hold of opportunities.

The principle of minimal Government less as a competitor in the economy and more as regulator and legislator is important. A free economy with Government as regulator can only be free if it is configured in a manner that supports small business, SME expansion, capital markets expansion, almost automatic adherence to benchmarks in service and product standards.

This should be the basis for economic and fiscal policies – gearing this country to become one that puts the power of opportunity, choice, career advancement and professional achievement in the hands of people.

At the present time, the largest domestic investor in the economy is the Government, which occupies a significant amount of potential which, when Government is unable to service through capital investments, falls idle and creates fertile ground for decline.

There is still time to redirect the economy to a positive, sustainable growth direction and this requires, strategic thinking to conceptualizing capital development projects, saving the small business sector, better protecting and empowering the poor, and increasing the level of local and foreign investment activity that can spur the return of economic growth.

Economic recovery will require dedicated and committed leadership willing to not only take the tough decisions, but also ready and competent enough to see those decisions through with less brutality in execution. Toughness with compassion in transition is key to sustainability for a different direction.

Economic recovery must take place on a number of fronts all at the same time, but must primarily focus on energy as it is currently the majority plank of support to the economy. If we are to get diversification right, we must ensure that the industry that has supported us for much of our economic life is stabilized and expanded, and becomes capable of footing the bill for the first stage of diversification.

Energy

The energy sector has seen a consistent fall in production for the period 2005 to 2011, and then a subsequent arrest of declines in crude output and a turn towards increases.

For various reasons, including planned shutdowns of major refinery and exploration facilities, production took a downward turn again.

As at March 2017 oil production stood at approximately 71,000 barrels of oil per day, and natural gas production stood at 3.3 million cubic feet per day.

Increasing crude production will require avid attention to restoring the profitability and credit worthiness of Petrotrin and also stabilizing the relationship with partner oil producers so that their confidence in Petrotrin’s viability as an investment option is secured.

While various incentives over the past years have seen a vast increase in investment in exploration and drilling activity, a change of Government brought uncertainty that is yet to be clarified.

Immediate steps are required to ensure that we are all clear on the incentives the Government is willing to stand by; the ability of the producers to step up exploration and production activity; a recalibration of how Trinidad and Tobago profits from its oil resources and targets for production levels that will allow the energy sector to finance, in part, economic diversification efforts.

Yes, easier said than done in an environment of a transforming global sector, but should we lose the opportunity to get ahead of the curve, we will be left managing a crisis triggered by another territory’s bolder decisions.

In natural gas production, much more expert input is required for us to fully understand and reformulate, if need be, the way we use natural gas resources. We must decide whether we are content to simply export high volumes in the form of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG); whether we formulate a new equation to provide greater supply to local industry; whether we have the kind of reserves to introduce new gas-based and petrochemical industries, and whether there are opportunities that must be pursued to maximize Trinidad and Tobago’s take from the downstream energy value chain.

Oil and gas resources, while extremely valuable as an export commodity in terms of supporting the national economy, must be considered for a level of supply to local industries for use in the manufacturing sector whether in oil and lubricants, or in the production of raw materials that can supply medium sized industrial operations for the production of goods that can in turn supply local and foreign markets.

In this one example, our manufacturing export equation can become far more calibrated in favour of Trinidad and Tobago’s revenue, and industry.

We are an oil and gas economy and mostly a gas-based economy, and that means that apart from increasing exploration and production, we must also increase the benefits that these resources bring to local industry and explore the possibility of putting energy ownership in the hands of what public policy should aspire to bolster – an increasingly investment savvy population.

Public Service

Economic recovery will also involve the immediate need to vastly improve the operations and delivery pace of the Public Service. While a large part of the less than satisfactory productivity level of the Public Service is because of bureaucracy, a great deal of effort must be put into leadership and execution of functions.

In other words, the Public Service can no longer see itself as an operation that can either meet targets, or not, and not face the need to answer for failures to meet targets.

Public Service Reform has become something of local legend with everyone developing plans and little implementation following. But perhaps, reform can be approached differently, but both incentivizing performance, and sanctioning failures to perform.

The Legislative arm of Government to work through the formation of a Joint Select Committee on Public Service Performance.

This JSC will review the performance of Ministries on a quarterly basis, by bringing Permanent Secretaries and Deputy Permanent Secretaries in to account for expenditure, project targets, shortfalls and delivery failures.

By having an open and accessible performance monitoring system such as a JSC, PSs and DPSs who now have to publicly account for the use of financial resources, and the progress of strategic plan execution will in turn be required to ensure that Executive, Mid-Management and Junior Public Service staff are more closely managed and monitored to ensure targets are being met.

Such an approach will also have the benefit of bringing process failures to the fore immediately, so that weaknesses can be addressed in a clear, tangible and expeditious manner.

The need to improve the performance and pace of Public Service delivery impacts directly on this country’s ability to provide a business environment that can be seen and measured as efficient, responsive and results oriented. Thiswill impact directly on the ease of doing business in Trinidad and Tobago, which in turn impacts directly on the volume of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) we can attract.

A more agile business environment in the Public Sector will also motivate the local private sector to pursue more risk-based investments, knowing that important services required from the Government will be delivered efficiently, on time and as promised.

Expenditure reviews and audits

Over the past years, a number of issues coming to light have exposed the weaknesses in a bureaucracy that does not appropriately monitor itself.

Whether it be in the form of cost-overruns in projects, over-payments, payments for services that are not being delivered, wastage, unnecessary spending categories and under-staffing, a deep and wide review and audit by Ministries has the potential to uncover vast cost savings which will help the Government to reduce spending, without removing essential services.

The recent revelation by the Auditor General of rental payments amounting to over $60 million for unoccupied premises is a good example of how real time audits and cost controls can save money without hindering the Government’s ability to spend at appropriate levels to deliver essential services to the population.

While there can be no true estimate of the kind of budgetary allocations we can save, recent history has shown that savings in just a few allocations could amount to full service allocations to essential services in the economy that, in the current budgetary equations, have been sacrificed.

Public Sector Investment

As at 2017, the Public Sector Investment Programme was achieving execution and allocation utilization rates of just over 60%, meaning that a large portion of allocated funds, deliberately intended for use in capital expenditure is not being used.

The passed-on effect of this is the impact on sectors such as Construction, Aggregate producers, Project Developers and Real Estate who will have developed strategic plans based on budget assurances, but were hindered by a failure to execute large portions of the PSIP.

The previous Administration achieved PSIP utilization rates of up to 95%, and this means that the problem cannot continually be put down to the Public Service bureaucracy. Someone somewhere has to shoulder the burden of strong and effective leadership in achieving the objectives set out by Government.

Effective Public Sector Investment relies on a more efficient Public Service and while reform must be pursued in a careful and structured way, performance can be immediately improved when the Public Service knows that it’s performance is being monitored by the Parliament, and the population has the opportunity to see, real time, whether failures are down to political administrations, or Public Service executives.

The truth is no one wants to be called out on his or her failures, and the more one knows that one must account, the harder one works to produce results. And this is where the Legislature can become key in improving both the Public Service and the quality of the Public Sector Investment Programme.

Read: Part 1part 3, part 4 and part 5 of this serie.

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