straight to the point – from different points of view

In defense of Nelson Mandela (Park)

In defense of Nelson Mandela (Park)

You couldn’t miss it if you tried. This past week or two we have had an amusing and entertaining “debate” in the public domain about the plans put forward by the Port of Spain Corporation (the Corporation) for a major redevelopment of Nelson Mandela Park (formerly King George V Park).

The Corporation’s proposal was to provide a raft of new sporting facilities built I think by the private sector and with use being paid for by our sporting folks. Social media and traditional media were overflowing with criticism of the project, led apparently by, but not confined to well heeled residents of the adjacent area.

I was struck by the realisation that the debate occurred among the members of the public. Other than the media release put out by the Corporation and which spoke of consultation with affected parties, there was nothing of note from them making the arguments for the project. That begs a few important questions.

You’ve heard me recite this before. Where is the Needs Analysis? What are the needs that this project is to address? How will it address those needs, and will we be able to assess at the end whether those needs have been met in any measurable and objective way?

Besides the Needs Analysis, why have we not seen any other planning documents? What will it cost? Who is to pay for it, and how? There will surely be capital (i.e. upfront construction costs) and recurrent costs (to be funded by users probably). An honest consultation process would provide that information and much more besides.

The result is that as usual, we have heated debates without the underlying information that would inform that debate. We will doubtless continue to spend large sums of public money in this way. That is our way, the macho political way beloved of all our political leaders. They don’t need analyses and projections to make decisions. Furthermore, the supposed public consultations never rest upon such assumptions and analyses as I continue to demand and recommend.

That is what the history of our large public sector projects tells us. And the public has become so used to this pretense at consultation and analysis that we go along merrily, engaging in sometimes heated debates not even prepared to demand the most rudimentary information from those advocating the projects.

I remind you of the Sandals project in Tobago where I among others was castigated because we dared to ask for a copy of the agreement, the Feasibility Study and the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). The Prime Minister famously and angrily attacked us arguing that Sandals was a world class company and that Sandals had done a Feasibility Study and that we therefore did not need to do one.

He was spending 500 million US$ of our money because the project was good for Sandals. Despite the lack of any Feasibility Study there are still people in the highest levels of government who lament the “loss” of the Sandals project and suggest that it will be back.

Here we are at local level adopting the same approach as at national level. I ask myself whether the new proposal had undergone any of the analysis that I suggested and which should be a minimum for any serious project of significance. If the answer is yes, then why was the information not shared with the public? If, as is more likely the case, the answer is no, one gets a clear understanding why we have a never ending line of failed projects. And when I describe a project as failed I mean both financially and in the lack of delivery of what it only vaguely promised.

Just as with the Sandals project I honestly cannot say whether I am for or against it. I simply do not have access to the analysis, assumptions and facts. My instinct is against because of the likely flooding, the loss of natural green space and the probability that many deserving users will be priced out of the market.

The sad reality is that there may be answers to all these concerns but they haven’t been dealt with in the consultation document. An honest consultation would have given the public the opportunity to hear whether these concerns were raised and what were the mitigating arguments. For example, and I’m not saying that this is so, but is excess flooding really likely and are there ways of reducing the impact?

When they did their evaluation of the project, did the Corporation consider these matters? I hope that I’m wrong but their failure to speak to them in their “consultation” speaks volumes. All the blame should not fall on their shoulders though. If we the public were to demand proper analysis and projections rather than base our support or otherwise on mere speculation, we could force them to treat us with a little more respect.

There appears to be another disturbing similarity to the Sandals project at work here. To put it into context I need to relate a short story. There is a local software development firm that offered to digitise the whole COVID effort providing much needed data to decision makers and streamlining the testing, contact tracing and vaccination processes. Slam dunk you would think?

They were told that such a contract could not be contemplated without a tendering process. The Ministry would have to take their offer and turn it into a Request for Proposal and then invite other competing firms to bid for the contract. The Ministry official lamented that he understood the value of and the need for the project but his hands were tied by “process”.

My question then is what happened to that debilitating process in relation to both the Sandals and the Nelson Mandela projects. With Sandals, the Prime Minister boasted that the idea was hatched prior to him even attaining office and that he and Mr Stewart agreed that they would bring Sandals to Tobago should he assume office. Whatever happened to “process” and just as importantly, why do we accept such treatment?

This one incident encapsulates so much that is wrong with our public procurement that it is worthy of at least one more column. Given that it fails for similar reasons as the Sandals project, why have so many people got on board to stop this one but blithely acquiesced in the expenditure of vastly more money on a project of no stated national value and likely ecological disaster? Is it a case of “not in my back yard”?

If so, then there is a lesson for public commentators like myself. Our public seems to respond more to mismanagement that touches their own daily lives, and which they can relate to personally. But the bottom line is that we must demand better information during the consultative process and the consistent use of “process” which is crude shorthand for the compliance with procurement best practice that we have been demanding for decades and which is routinely promised then ignored by our leaders.

I end today with the observation that the document from the Corporation invited comments on the project. Comments were to be sent to a gmail account. The implications of that practice also deserve an entire column at a time that we preach the gospel of digitisation..

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