Tuesday 2 June, 2020

Robinson cites ‘lost year’ at Science, Energy and Technology Ministry

Julian Robinson

Julian Robinson

Opposition Spokesman on Science and Technology, Julian Robinson, has used his contribution to the 2019-2020 Sectoral Debate to highlight what he described as a “lost year” at the Ministry of Science, Energy and Technology (MSET).”

Of note is that several agencies that fall under that ministry have been engulfed in scandals over the past 12 months. They include the state-owned oil refinery, Petrojam; National Energy Solutions Limited (NESoL); and the Universal Service Fund (USF).

During that time, the former Energy Minister, Dr Andrew Wheatley, resigned, as well as the three Jamaican members of the then Petrojam board, along with the refinery’s General Manager, Floyd Grindley, and its Human Resource Manager, Yolande Ramharrack. There were also high-level casualties at NESoL and the USF. Investigations are still ongoing at Petrojam and NESol.

Robinson opened his 30-minute presentation in the House of Representatives on Tuesday by stating that: “The last year at the Ministry of Science, Energy and Technology can best be described as chaotic and where the practices of a number of key agencies under that portfolio have led to a loss of public trust and confidence.

“The clear manifestations of the corruption, nepotism and cronyism continue to unfold…, with new revelations of malpractices,” Robinson continued.

He added that while these are very obvious and clear to the public, “there is another side effect that is less obvious but equally as grave, and that is a number of critical projects and initiatives at the ministry that have been at a standstill.”

Robinson flatly declared that “I would regard the last year of MSET's operations as a lost year”.

The former junior minister in the same ministry under the previous People’s National Party (PNP) Government said the Data Protection Bill was placed before a Joint Select Committee of Parliament in November 2017. He noted that the committee held several meetings and received submissions from external stakeholders.

Robinson said the last meeting of that committee was held on March 27, 2018, and “We have lost one year on this”.

He said one year was also lost on the work of the office of the chief information officer to streamline the “plethora of ICT projects and initiatives across the ministries, departments and agencies”. The office was established by the previous administration, and Robinson noted that the last holder of that office, Dr Louis Shallal, demitted office in September of last year.

“Prior to that, he was working part-time. There has been no indication about the process to identify a replacement, or the status of work of the office.  We have lost one year on this,” said Robinson.

He said three years were lost as he questioned the status of the ‘Open Data Barometer’ (ODB), which is produced every two years, and which the World Wide Web Foundation uses to rank governments in critical areas. These include: the readiness of governments for open data initiatives, policies, and the ‘timely and open publication’ of data in key areas. It also assesses whether open government data is being used in ways that bring practical benefits to businesses, politics and civil society.

Robinson said in the 4th edition of the barometer, which was published in May 2017, Jamaica ranked first in the Caribbean and 40th globally out of 115 countries. However, he quoted the authors of the report at the time, who said: “All together, the components of the ODB assessment suggests that the demand-side opportunities and capacity to realise social and economic value from open data are considerable for Jamaica, but are not matched by commensurate commitment and action on the part of the Government in terms of appropriate initiatives and policies.”

“Since then, the Government’s open data programme has been at a standstill. We have an open data portal, launched with great fanfare in 2015, which has become almost useless because the data is not being updated,” Robinson stated.

He said Jamaica has since been surpassed by other countries in the region, notably St Lucia, which became the first Caribbean country to have an open data policy that embraces the “open by default” principle.

And Robinson said time has been lost with the Government’s failure to review and update the Cyber Crimes Act. There is a mandatory requirement that the Act be reviewed every three years to keep pace with changes in technology. The last review should have commenced in December 2018. Robinson said the review is critical, as it was estimated in 2017 that Jamaica lost US$100 million to cyber-criminal activities.

“We need to give the security forces and prosecutors the tools to do their jobs,” he said.

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