Walter Blackman Comments on the 15th Actuarial Review of the NIS of Barbados – Misallocation of Human Resources

Walter Blackman – Actuary and CBC Talk Show host

The 15th actuarial review of the Barbados NIS is special in that the report was written at the end of the first 50 years of the scheme’s existence. This review therefore gives us an opportunity to see to what extent the NIS reflects the negative features and characteristics of the Barbadian society and economy which have emerged since independence.

The single biggest contributor to the downward slide and decline of Barbados, as a nation, is the misallocation of its human resources. From top to bottom, in private and public, we see and feel the deleterious effects of persons holding critical positions who have no basic understanding of what their roles are, and who are far less interested in knowing how to perform them. Whilst no attention is paid to effectively performing the job, every effort is put into extracting the essence and perquisites out of the position on one hand, and using every ounce of power associated with it to achieve personal and, very often, nationally damaging ends, on the other.

Over the last 50 years, some individuals have created a “science” out of leveraging their positions for social, political and economic advancement. This “science” has been carved from a litany of fraudulent practices which have left both the Barbadian government and taxpayer impoverished and bewildered. Today, too many government departments are owed hundreds of millions of dollars by individuals and companies possessing the capacity and willingness to pay. Payment would be forthcoming, if only a minimal amount of pressure were applied to the delinquent offenders. However, no effective pressure is ever applied. What is responsible for this? Corruption?

This urge, on the part of the Barbadian individual, to focus solely on the “sweets and power” of an office or position, and not on its function, has resulted in a plethora of unenlightened, retrogressive minds spending most of the working day trying to identify people who are more qualified, or perceived to be “brighter” or more talented than they are, and then viewing them as threats to be despised, sidelined or destroyed.

Gripped by feelings of insecurity, and conscience-ridden because of their glaring lack of ability, these retrogressive minds then proceed to handpick surrogates who must be just as dull, or duller than they are, so that they can shine. Fifty continuous years of this practice have succeeded in creating a core of mediocrity at the centre of almost everything Barbadian. The corrosive nature of this phenomenon has become so pervasive, that many of our major national institutions, held firmly in its grasp, are now spiraling uncontrollably towards moribundity.

When local talent is not being misallocated and suffocated on the home front, it is being ruthlessly and stupidly sidestepped in favour of utilizing foreign individuals and entities. Some of these foreign individuals and entities, despite having dark and shady backgrounds, have been able to secure multi-million dollar business deals and contracts with successive governments. How can a small country like Barbados, along with its institutions, develop and grow if successive governments continue to discriminate against its citizens and deliberately pursue a policy of enriching aliens? What fuels this glaring propensity to keep Barbadians down by marginalizing and disregarding their talents?

As a country, Barbados is now unable to withstand the slightest scrutiny by independent international agencies. Public administration in our country has become so woeful and pathetic that, according to Morneau Shepell Ltd, the foreign actuarial firm which produced the report, “in 2016, the IMF raised concerns about data inconsistencies and the credibility of some national statistics.” This is a shameful pronouncement on the state of our national collective incompetence.

The NIS is a national institution which affects almost every Barbadian because of the universality of its coverage. To achieve its long-term national objectives, the NIS, during its first 25 years, ought to have been equipped with skilled, well-trained employees who could help conceptualize, map, and automate all of the processes involved in registering and covering workers, collecting premiums, paying benefits and administrative expenses, producing financial statements, and generating credible data for use in actuarial assumptions and demographic projections. Having such a cadre of employees was extremely vital to the long-term viability of the NIS.

The NIS, specifically the part of it that was born as a department of central government, was breastfed from infancy with the milk of backward-thinking civil service attitudes and human resource limitations. Over time, heavy political interference with and influence over the civil service recruitment process, and over the day-to-day functioning and operations of some departments, took its toll and retarded the growth of the institution. Lax management practices and the expected mishandling of contributions made a bad situation even worse.

After 50 years of operation, instead of having an efficient, fully automated system in place, the NIS now finds itself in an embarrassing position where Morneau Shepell Ltd had to alert anyone reading the 15th actuarial report that the preparation of the report was delayed. It is instructive to note the explanation given by the foreign actuarial firm for the report’s delay:

“Data issues delayed the preparation of this report and also affected the quality and reliability of some data that was provided.”

“…some statistical data were incomplete and financial statements unaudited..”

“The delayed preparation of this report is due to administrative system issues which affected the collection of timely and accurate demographic and financial data.”

The foreign actuaries went on to hint to Barbadians and policymakers that “….these data issues may influence specific rates and years when key events are projected to occur…”

The anguish and heartbreak resulting from this unhealthy state of affairs will be felt by only a few Barbadians. This is so because the bulk of the population has no idea of the amount of money which has been spent by NIS on computer hardware systems and software packages. Tales have been told by NIS “insiders” about money “flowing like a burst pipe” into the hands foreign consultants and retailers for the purchase and setting up of computer systems and associated software packages. Despite the outlay of massive sums of money, which have contributed to the depletion of our foreign reserves, the NIS has not been able to produce a seamless automated system to ensure that credible elements of data are produced, and that benefits are paid in an accurate and timely manner. As a first step toward transparency, Barbadian taxpayers need to demand that an official enquiry be made into the amount of money spent by the NIS on computer hardware and software since 1980. The analysis should show who the payees are, and how much was expended in foreign currency. In this area, something appears to be rotten in the state of Denmark.

There is one slight detail in the report which many readers would tend to overlook. According to Morneau Shepell, outstanding NIS contributions at December 31, 2014 totaled $224 million. However, at a press conference held in early September 2017, Mr. Ian Carrington, Director of NIS, announced that the current amount of arrears owed to the scheme was $650 million (cf Loop News, September 2, 2017). So, is it possible that in less than three years, outstanding contributions to the NIS had increased by $426 million? This seems highly unlikely.

The $650 million figure becomes slightly more palatable after one studies page 9 of the actuarial report, which lists, in part, the amount of un-invested assets at December 31, 2014:

Contributions receivable 223.7 million

Accounts receivable 220.3 million

This approach suggests that “total receivables” of $444 million at December 31, 2014 grew to $650 million at August 31, 2017. This represents an increase of almost 50% over the period, and serves to highlight a situation that is downright unsatisfactory. This clear evidence of incompetence and general refusal on the part of civil servants to collect revenue for government explains why taxpayers’ disposable income is dwindling at such an alarming rate.

If nothing else, the 15th actuarial report shows that there is an urgent need to reform the NIS. The institution needs to be extricated from the grips of the civil service and its associated political influence. It should be established as an independent agency with a Board of Directors and staffed appropriately. Instead of having representatives from the Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU) and the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW), it should have one representative from the Congress of Trade Unions & Staff Associations of Barbados (CTUSAB). In addition to the Barbados Employers’ Confederation (BEC), representatives from the Barbados Private Sector Association (BPSA), the Barbados Chamber of Commerce & Industry (BCCI), the Small Business Association (SBA), the Barbados Association of Medical Practitioners (BAMP), the Credit Union League (CUL), the Central Bank, the Bar Association, the Ministry of Labour, and the Ministry of Finance should constitute the Board.

The investment committee of the NIS should be made up of competent professionals with a proven track record in the areas of finance and investments. The ultimate decision-making power over the investment of NIS funds should reside with the Board, acting upon the recommendations of the newly constituted investment committee, rather than in the office of the Minister of Finance.

Annual actuarial valuations of the NIS should be carried out by Barbadian firms, or an in-house Barbadian actuary, with the aim of preserving scarce foreign exchange and developing Barbadian actuarial expertise.

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