PM moots public bodies review while addressing HEART retreat spend

Prime Minister Andrew Holness says the country needs to examine the manner in which public bodies are run, as failures do not only occur at the board level, but also at the staff level, and are oftentimes difficult to address due to the Government’s systems.

“There are failures at the staff and management levels as well, and based upon our labour laws, based upon our PBMA (Public Bodies Management and Accountability Act) and others, it is not always easy for immediate action to be taken when you do not get output and value for money from performance. So that general conversation needs to be had,” Holness told the House of Representatives on Tuesday.

He was speaking on the issue of the conduct of public boards, while responding to questions about a $5.6-million four-day planning retreat hosted by the Human Employment and Resource Training/National Service Training Agency (HEART/NSTA) Trust at Moon Palace Hotel in Ocho Rios, St Ann, in October.

Holness, who is portfolio minister for the agency, said the board of directors and senior managers were satisfied that due care was taken in relation to the expenditure.

He told the House that the rates, particularly payments to the conference facilitator and strategic coach — which totalled almost $1.5 million — were in keeping with standard market rates.

Questions about the retreat were raised by the Member of Parliament (MP) for St Andrew South Eastern Julian Robinson in November.

Holness outlined that $4.19 million of the total was spent on accommodations, meals, and technology support, while $800,000 was paid for the services of a facilitator, $664,290 to a strategic coach, and $198,560 on administrative expenses.

“Given the COVID-19 restrictions and the absence of a suitable facility within the organisation to accommodate the number of persons, a suitable external site was sought. Even outside of a pandemic, boards usually host their retreats off-site at locations that are dedicated and focused on supporting meetings,” he explained.

But Robinson argued that the expenditure on the retreat was excessive and reflective of the management’s thinking in regard to the use of public funds.

“I find this expenditure excessive in a COVID environment where there is significant suffering, where people have had to band them belly, where HEART’s own contributions would have gone down because employers have cut back. Everybody has to share and show regard for the challenges that the country is going through,” Robinson said.

He insisted that the agency had other venue options, including its Runaway Bay academy.

“It’s a great facility, it could have been used,” Robinson said as he argued that there was a larger issue of accountability plaguing the institution.

“This is symptomatic of a broader problem at the institution; you have a chairman that is in conflict of interest about contract awarded to his company, senior management that awarded themselves salary increases, and then have to get it retroactively approved by the Ministry of Finance. You have students who have completed their studies and cannot get their certificates. You have restive staff, so there are myriad issues at HEART,” Robinson said. He stressed that it was time for a more hands-on approach to be taken with the agency.

Holness advised that the Government has taken a decision for a strategic review of HEART and its mandate and is now in the process of hiring a managing director to help with improving management of the entity’s operations.

He agreed that the agency is not fulfilling its mandate, but said he is satisfied that strategic steps have been taken to realign the organisation with the national needs. However, the operational problems need to be fixed.

“I’ve certainly given that direction to the board,” said Holness.


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