In recent weeks, hearings in the Commission of Inquiry have again highlighted a longstanding problem in the territory: Successive governments have used exceedingly poor practice when appointing and removing the boards that oversee statutory bodies.
As a result, many boards’ independence has been compromised again and again, with elected ministers usurping their power and politicising their functions.
Such issues have been commonplace for decades, but the COI’s recent hearings have shed light on the inner workings of a broken system.
For instance, instead of advertising board positions publicly and then selecting the best applicants for the job, ministries often have nominated appointees through an informal internal process that is non-transparent at best, according to testimony before the COI.
From there, officials often have failed to carry out basic due-diligence, such as background checks, reference interviews, and the like.
As a result, many good candidates doubtlessly have been overlooked while poorly qualified ones may have been selected in their place — often simply because of their loyalty to a political party.
Then there is the question of removal. For decades, many boards have been replaced every time a new administration took office.
But this practice can come with a heavy cost, including a cyclical loss of institutional knowledge as fresh members are forced to reinvent the wheel after each election cycle.
Shortly after the 2019 general election, Premier Andrew Fahie’s administration attempted to codify this longstanding system by announcing a new “policy” linking boards’ and administrations’ terms.
Though the attorney general had grave reservations about this “policy,” which likely circumvents the law in some cases, Cabinet proceeded anyway, according to testimony in the COI.
Taken together, poor appointment and removal practices dramatically limit the power of boards that should be allowed to operate independently without fear of reprisals.
Through the years, the adverse effects have resulted in the unfortunate politicisation of entities including the BVI Airports Authority, the BVI Ports Authority, the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College, the BVI Tourist Board, and the BVI Electricity Corporation, to name a few.
Since the COI began asking questions, Mr. Fahie’s administration has rightly promised to turn over a new leaf, and in June government advertised publicly for new board members for various statutory bodies under the premier’s umbrella.
We hope that such measures will lead to comprehensive reform — and that they aren’t just a temporary knee-jerk reaction to questions from the COI.
Moving forward, two steps are particularly important. Firstly, members of all boards should be chosen in a transparent manner that includes public advertisements and adequate due-diligence. Secondly, all members should be allowed to serve out their appointed tenure regardless of any change in administration.
These two simple steps — which in some cases may need to be enforced with legislative amendments — would represent important improvements to governance in the territory.
Further reforms should include boosting transparency by opening boards’ meetings to the public and regularly publishing their minutes — another area where we would like to see legislative amendments.
We have no doubt that most board members are well-meaning citizens committed to improving the territory.
But because of a broken system, they often are relegated to operating behind a veil of secrecy while carrying out the thinly disguised whims of elected ministers.
Systemic reform would help give board members the independence they need to step back and refocus on the badly needed work at hand.