Noel Zamot

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Por Noel Zamot
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Rebuilding Puerto Rico through Radical Transparency

Monday, the 22nd of July 2019 was a historical day for Puerto Rico.  By many estimates a million citizens - fully one third of the population of the entire island - marched to demand Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s resignation.  Buoyed and inspired by a world watching as they reclaimed their rights as citizens, hundreds of thousands marched across the island supported by celebrities from across the political spectrum.  Behind these acts of civic engagement is an even more powerful truth:  the American citizens of Puerto Rico will forever hold their government accountable for its actions and its outcomes.  

I don’t know what the governor’s future may be, but I do know that the planning for Puerto Rico’s future must start now.  And it is becoming obvious that the long term answer for Puerto Rico must be built around radical transparency.  TelegramGate, the FBI arrests, and the continued resignation of administration officials have essentially paralyzed any economic activity by the Rosselló administration.  There are widespread reports of devastatingly low morale, of government employees emphatically supporting their fellow citizens in reclaiming the island’s future as their own.  Radical transparency offers the only way to reclaim civic trust in the government, and the only way to ensure resources are properly obtained, awarded and implemented.  

Unfortunately, local anti-corruption and transparency initiatives are falling on deaf ears in Washington.  These initiatives are dismissed without consideration by a Washington suffering from “Puerto Rico fatigue”.  As one senior committee staff member said, “The definition of madness is to try the same thing again, but expect a different result.  We are past believing this [Rosselló] administration.  We have to do something different.”  It is an understatement to say that the Government of Puerto Rico has lost ALL credibility in Washington DC.  I have not spoken to a single staffer, member of Congress, career or appointed executive who would trust any initiative put forth by the current local administration.  It is thus reasonable to expect that - at least in the near term - transparency will be imposed on the government of Puerto Rico.  This may be harsh, uncomfortable or insulting, but it is the unsurprising result of years of hidden scandal, corruption and graft.  

There has been much discussion in Washington on WHAT to do differently.  Everyone seems to agree that unprecedented levels of transparency are the necessary first condition for any release of Federal funds.  Transparency initiatives implemented via a Federal Coordinator or through Agency directives tied to funding bills are gaining ground.  Just yesterday Governor Rosselló mentioned during an ill-fated interview that the Puerto Rico government would welcome such Federal oversight.  His wish may come true, but at a cost he may not fully grasp.  

In subsequent weeks I’ll share more ideas (many provided by passionate citizens) to inject transparency across the Puerto Rico government.  We’ll start with a few simple changes to government procurement that will sound obvious to anyone who has previously worked with the Federal Government, but sound incredible in Puerto Rico. 

Make all government Requests for Proposals (RFPs) public, and eliminate Requests for Qualification (RFQs).  Many will say this is already done by PREPA, COR3 and others.  The news and FBI arrests in the past weeks strongly suggest otherwise.  It is clear that contracts are being awarded without public input and at the direction of shady “consultants.”  Eliminating RFQ’s removes a costly, non-value added step that only serves to shut out vendors that elected to not “invest” in “highly qualified consultants”.  

Make all evaluation criteria for contracts available to the public.  It is mind boggling to read some of the evaluation criteria for government contracts.  At times these documents read as if the government isn’t even trying to hide the fact that the contract award is already wired before the proposals are evaluated.  Evaluation criteria that is based on accepted best practices - best value, lowest price, or some other tradeoff - need to be clearly stated so the public can have visibility into whether awards are appropriate.  The public can also have a say on whether the weighing of projects is appropriate.  Fuel supply contracts for PREPA, for example, must be evaluated solely on price, not on other made up criteria that only serve to enable “preferred providers”.  

Make all contract award boards public - to include members, agendas, and decisions.  One of the most common complaints I hear from project owners and investors is the expectation that to win a contract you have to “buy” a consultant who will then tell someone tied to Fortaleza what contract will win.  Making source selection boards excruciatingly visible - no exceptions for projects using Federal funds - is a step in the right direction.  The members of the board would be accountable to the public, forced to abide by previously published evaluation criteria, and expected to evaluate ALL submittals - not merely those that were “down-selected” by a questionable, duplicative RFQ process.  

None of this represents a descent into mob rule.  On the contrary, it ensures that the government is accountable to the public, and that any procurement actions with taxpayer dollars are visible to the taxpayer.  Some will note that the government of Puerto Rico already has similar processes in place.  The brutal truth is that no one trusts the government to properly run these processes.  Until Puerto Rico’s government can regain the trust of the international community, these initiatives must be carried out by independent third parties.  This may feel unfair to a new generation of political leaders vying for office.  But we must deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.  The blunt reality is that no transparency or anti-corruption initiative that comes from the government of Puerto Rico will be taken seriously by Washington or the world.  Puerto Rico has years of difficult reputational rebuilding ahead.  

Even in the midst of the current political crisis I still receive exasperated calls from colleagues, investors and project owners reporting continued attempts at graft by people (allegedly) close to the government.  “Recommendations” on “highly qualified consultants” who “play both sides”, “donations” to “ensure” that credits are “issued without delay”, or claims that “contracts are wired” for the right party abound.  Chaos breeds opportunity, but also desperation from those who still believe they can extract value from a rapidly vanishing government honey pot. To say this is harmful to the island is an understatement.  We must demand, welcome and adopt inevitable transparency initiatives if there is any hope of rebuilding our island’s economy.  The path won’t be easy, but our grandchildren will thank us.

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