THE Integrity Commission made news recently when its chairman disclosed that several MPs have failed to declare their incomes and assets (SN 15/01/2020). This letter makes no excuse for these MPs. Instead, it contends that the Integrity Commission must be fundamentally revamped.
In 1997, two years after the United Nations Convention against Corruption came into force, our National Assembly passed the Integrity Commission Act to, quoting the act itself, “provide for the establishment of the Integrity Commission and to make provisions for the security of persons in public life.” Translating, the act pinpoints three functions the commission must perform: (i) monitor the wealth of specified political and professional officials (its self-assigned biggest role), (ii) detect and prevent conflict-of-interest situations, and (iii) serve as a complaint authority against public officials for acts ranging from (using as a guide the 25 criteria on the commission’s complaint form) corruption and conflict of interest to politically biased and inefficient service.
The commission has failed on all fronts. Revamping must achieve three outcomes: (i) to remove overlap in both jurisdiction and mission with other state entities, (ii) to give more regard to privacy interests without compromising transparency (thereby encouraging more submissions from officials), and (iii) to create a commission with a more impactful mandate.
First, several countries have recognised that revenue authorities are more effective at wealth-monitoring than integrity commissions. The larger database of our GRA, its more integrated systems, and its greater legal powers make it far more capable to detect undeclared and illegitimate wealth. In addition, the State Assets Recovery Agency (SARA) is more empowered than the commission to investigate any sudden wealth of public officials and to recover it. Then also the function of the Integrity Commission that addresses inefficient and unfair public service parallels that of the Ombudsman. By removing these overlapping jurisdictions and missions, the commission could be streamlined.
Secondly, protection of the privacy rights of public officials. As one who has had to disclose assets, incomes and liabilities to the commission over the years in three different capacities (as MP, as dean of a university faculty, and as a spouse), I have never felt comfortable. Apart from the nervousness about confidentiality of information in Guyana’s political milieu, I dislike the fact that the commission demands more than is required to fulfil its mandate and that it includes officials (such as the deans of faculties) who are ill-positioned to participate in the kind of mischief the commission was established to thwart. An integrity commission should be mandated not to measure total wealth of a public official and his close family, but to monitor the variation in their yearly wealth. Measuring total wealth reaches back into the life of the official prior to his or her job appointment. It is therefore an excessive invasion of privacy; it is also unnecessary because annual declarations of assets and incomes from the date of one’s appointment can alone detect any suspicious richness without the need for total wealth in the equation. As such, the requirement for public officials to declare their total bank savings and to list and value all other assets unjustifiably invades their privacy. To make the argument differently, any need for such additional information does not warrant the invasion.
Thirdly, it would be more useful for the commission to focus exclusively on detecting and preventing conflicts of interest in the public service. No other agency in Guyana has this mandate. In this refocusing, public officials would be obligated to declare only information that could place them in a potential or actual conflict-of-interest situation. Such information should be limited mainly to properties owned (without stating their values as presently required), shareholdings in companies (without stating their values as presently required), private directorships, ownerships and partnerships, and gifts. This less intrusive and burdensome demand may encourage prompt and full compliance by officials. But additionally, and more to the point, the commission (and the public) can use the information to assess the extent to which self-interest could interfere or may have interfered with the decisions of public officials. The commission must revamp itself urgently.