Letters & Opinion

St. Jude and the Art of the Con — Part 12: The Case For Management

Image of an incomplete St. Jude Hospital
Image of David Prescod
By David Prescod

DURING his October 23, 2017 press conference, Minister Guy Joseph indicated that he had rejected a request from the Association of Professional Engineers of St. Lucia and/or the Engineers Registration Board to undertake a review of the Technical Audit of the St. Jude reconstruction project. In Minister Joseph’s opinion, the Association could not be trusted to undertake an impartial review.

The Chairman of the Engineers Registration Board has since refuted the suggestion made by the Minister that any such request had been made.

But during that same press conference, Minister Joseph sank to a new low as he accused those public servants who had served on the Project Steering Committee as being part of a network of civil servants who were now obstructing his efforts, youtube.com/watch?v=jFNQbaUOrxw, (1:11:16 to 1:12:25).

As we consider the management of this project, much has been made of the Project Manager’s performance and of the inadequacy of the then Government’s oversight of the project’s execution. While this process may not have been perfect, from the viewpoint that Government has suffered no demonstrable loss as a result, it has been adequate.

The term “Project Manager” itself can describe various functions. Some forms of construction contract use it to identify the Client’s Representative during the construction process, but projects, and project management, entail much more than this. And, to perhaps muddle things up a little bit more, a distinction also has to be made between project management, and project administration. A little explanation might help.

Any process of change can be defined as a project, and so if we consider the tying of our shoe laces, we have the elements of a project there: a goal – to keep our shoes on our feet; and a process for doing so – lacing up the shoes and tying a knot. Most of us now perform this administrative task with hardly a second glance.

For sportspersons, however, keeping those shoelaces tied can present a major difficulty, with disastrous consequences when they untie, and so it is perhaps unsurprising that thousands of ways have been devised by which our shoes can be laced and tied.

Now, keeping those shoes on our feet has become an extremely complicated matter as choices have to be made as to which of those thousands of methods we will attempt, and for how long. Management functions are required and decisions have to be made with respect to the resources to be utilized on this experiment, namely our time, mental effort, and energy.

Needless to say, most of us shun this newly-introduced complexity and rapidly return to the way of tying our shoes which we were taught somewhere about the age of five — with maybe an extra knot for safety. In doing so, we take the management decision that avoidance of the risk of tripping on an untied lace is not worth the effort required to investigate those thousands of possible ways of tying our laces.

As we look at St. Jude Hospital, we see that what began as a relatively simple process of reconstruction grew first in scope – the roofs of the wings had to be replaced, and in complexity – asbestos had to be removed from the roofs and from pipework. We have a technical consultant in place, and a Project Manager whose role, as described in the Project Manager’s Handover Report, was administrative.

As the scope of the works again increases, complexity also increases as result of the need to purchase equipment, specialist materials and hospital furniture, and through issues associated with donor funding. This increased complexity was recognized, and managed, through Government’s further engagement of the technical consultant for this procurement.

With the technical consultant now responsible for the management of procurement, we see from the Project Manager’s handover report that some 28 contracts were awarded, many of which were made, and paid for, through the main contractor. There is nothing illegal about this, and while it may be unusual, consider the alternative of preparing documentation for tendering on these 28 contracts, inviting tenders and having the Government tenders board adjudicate on their award.

Both solutions present their own nightmares, and the simpler process of direct award, or award through the main contractor, was adopted. There are, of course, opportunities for inflated prices here, but the leaked Technical Audit has not identified one such case.

For us to now indiscriminately criticize the management of the project is, however, self-defeating, as while it may indicate possible limitations of our human resource, it offers no pathway for the development of that resource and instead invites substitution by external sources.

But, as fingers are pointed at civil servants by Minister Joseph, it might be instructive to note also that during the execution of this project, three different Permanent Secretaries from the Ministry of Finance served at various times on that Project Steering Committee for the hospital’s reconstruction.

As Minister Joseph heaps scorn on the hospital’s Project Steering Committee, is he then also saying that not one of those Permanent Secretaries took their responsibilities seriously?

We examine our vanity next week.

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