EDITORIAL: Sometimes necessary for life

Founding member of the Democratic National Alliance, Bruce Goodwin, is calling for the minister with responsibility for the Antigua Public Utilities Authority (APUA), Robin Yearwood, to be relieved of his portfolio.  According to Goodwin, the minister is not competent to discharge his responsibilities.  Obviously, the buck stops with Minister Yearwood, so he bears some responsibility for the current state of utilities in the country. But at the same time, how does management get a pass?

APUA is a statutory body, meaning it is quasi-autonomous.  It should be run by a board and a management team.  The minister should act as a liaison between the board and cabinet to ensure that the overall plans of the government are executed and that established goals met.  We know that is not how it operates in reality, but that is how it should operate. 

Defenders of Minister Yearwood will say that he is a hands-on kind of guy and his office in the utilities headquarters is simply so that he can keep an eye on things.  Fair enough. It is not a point worth arguing, but we are sure that some will do exactly that.  The issue at hand is not where the minister sits or what type of management style he employs to oversee the utilities portfolio, but rather the effectiveness of APUA and its management, as a whole (minister included).

Let’s start with some facts.  While the government has changed, the senior management team has been around for a while.  Using just one example, we can start at the top. Esworth Martin, the current General Manager, was appointed to that position during the United Progressive Party years but held the post of Finance and Accounting Manager for many years before that.  His tenure at APUA pre-dates the UPP as he served under Minister Yearwood when he held the utilities portfolio during the Antigua Labour Party administration.

The point is, like government, APUA is continuous, and while some employees have come and gone, the senior management team has been around for a while (for the most part).  So, while people are focusing their political attention on the minister, shouldn’t there also be a spotlight shone on management and its performance?  Or are we saying that management is simply a puppet of the politicians and nothing gets done at APUA unless politicians say so?

Considering the options (independent or not), there is no good response for those at the helm.  They are responsible for some of the basic necessities for life, yet many people are regularly deprived of those basics.   What is the defense? Certainly, no one will be brave enough to say that the politicians handcuffed them and the current state of affairs is the product of political intervention and micro-management, and if they do, it will only be in reference to the prior government (both times).  More likely, they will blame it on the lack of resources.  But that is not a great excuse because it is well established that the utility is overstaffed and under-productive. 

The last report (in 2016) from the World Bank pointed out that the normal ratio at any utility is one employee for every 200 customers. However, at APUA, the number of employees is triple that figure. The recommendation was to right-size the company, however, the government took charge and said no.  They pointed the blame finger towards the UPP and said that although they inherited a mess, they did not wish to be accused wrongly of victimisation by reducing staff.  To us, this is clear evidence that Cabinet runs things, but we are constantly told otherwise.

For the record, we do not know the current headcount at APUA because the numbers fluctuate depending on whom you ask.  Shortly before the World Bank report was made public, the number that was usually cited was about 600, however, the Prime Minister stated that the workforce was about 800.  You do the math.  Efforts to get a current headcount were unsuccessful.

Where the ‘blame’ and spotlight should focus is a very important issue that needs clarification.  If the government is in charge, then they need to come out and say that management is simply the executioner of government ‘diktat,’ and that APUA is as much a social programme as it is a utility company.  If that is not the case, then the performance of management needs to be reviewed in the context of where we are today; especially as it relates to the performance of the company in the satisfaction of the government’s goals and their customer’s requirements.

All of this is very relevant and important because the inefficiencies of APUA are paid for by the taxpayer and customers.  And we need look no further than the minister himself for evidence of that fact.  When lobbying for increased water rates, Minister Yearwood said,  “You see the numbers of people that are being employed here. So, that’s why we want the tariff …”  No matter who is running the show, the customers are shouldering the burden and that is not right! And taking a political scalp, at this point in time, will not right the floundering ship that is APUA!

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