Govt agencies' IT 'drag' in COVID-19

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John Delaney, QC.

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

The Bahamian economy “must come out of COVID-19 with a greater degree of efficiency than we went into this” through the full-fledged embrace of technology, a former attorney general urged yesterday.

John Delaney QC, now-principal at the Delaney Partners law firm, told Tribune Business that The Bahamas must not abandon the remote working techniques forced upon it by the pandemic but instead ensure its economy was ready to continue using them “across the board” despite the further relaxation of restrictions on the private sector.

Welcoming the prime minister’s decision to permit the morning opening of law firm offices on every day of the working week, Mr Delaney said several critical government agencies had failed to match his company’s digital “functionality” over the past two months.

He pointed in particular to the companies registry, which “gradually” improved over the period, while also noting that his firm and others in the financial services industry had initially been unable to make fee and other payments to Securities Commission on behalf of clients.

Crediting the capital markets regulator for adjusting quickly, Mr Delaney said COVID-19 had also forced the Bahamian judicial system to start using video conferencing as a means to hold hearings even though the enabling legislation to facilitate this had been in place for some years.

Reacting to law firms being able to open for half a day, five days per week, the former attorney general told this newspaper: “Let me say that the removal of restrictions on law firms, to the extent that we’re able to operate for half-a-day in the morning hours, is certainly very welcome and it would go a long way to restoring a greater level of efficiency and productivity.

Mr Delaney, who said “the extent to which firms were able to work from home really depended on the infrastructure of the company from an IT perspective”, added that the re-opening of law offices would facilitate easier administrative support and enable attorneys to more easily discuss legal matters with their colleagues.

However, he argued that The Bahamas cannot afford to lose the technology-related gains made over the last two months and must also fix the weaknesses exposed by the pandemic - especially the ability of key government agencies, which act as regulatory hubs for sectors such as financial services, to interact with the private sector and its clients.

“I would say that it’s extremely important for the government agencies with which we interact that they return to a level of functionality because during this period of working from home it was a drag on our ability to operate to the extent certain of them were not able to function as well in the remote environment,” Mr Delaney told Tribune Business.

‘‘There was the Companies Registry at times. They gradually improved along the way, but the degree of functionality wasn’t there with the Companies Registry.” He added that the Securities Commission was also unable to accept electronic payments when the “work from home” measure was implemented on March 20.

“We are doing investment funds or paying fees on behalf of clients that are registrants of the Securities Commission,” Mr Delaney added. “We had to send a cheque.” This, he said, had resulted in greater physical interaction of the sort that the Government wanted to avoid to prevent COVID-19’s spread.

“Even in as late an age as this that was the case,” the Delaney Partners chief said.”To the Securities Commission’s credit they changed it, so we came out of this with a much greater degree of efficiency than we went in.

“The sincere hope is that this experience during the time of COVID-19 of being unable to work in a physical interaction manner leads to a greater move towards enabling technology across the board in terms of the economy so we can work remotely. We certainly need it to the greatest extent possible.

“Certainly in terms of the legal profession that needs to happen both for the private law firm offices, the Government agencies and the court system - holding hearings remotely by video conference. We’ve had the enabling legislation for the video conferencing of hearings for many years now, but in terms of the courts deploying it in any regular way that has been forced by this situation,” Mr Delaney continued.

“There’s no need for that to go away with COVID-19. It makes more sense to have hearings by video conference rather than going to court in commercial matters. That’s going to be more efficient and doable in the great majority of cases assuming the courts are able to do it and attorneys are up to it also.

“What we need to to is digitise the court registry so we have electronic filing and retrieval of documents, and that will give is the ability to operate in an electronic environment at an optimal level. I’m sure much the same could be said of many aspects of life in the economy. All this is money well spent by moving in this direction.”

The Supreme Court registry has opened “by appointment” within the past two weeks, but Mr Delaney said prior to this there were no hearings at that level while attorneys were unable to file legal papers.

He added that Bahamian companies also needed to obtain the ability to access data and their IT systems from outside this country as part of disaster preparedness, risk management and business continuity plans given the possibility of further Hurricane Dorian-type storms hitting this nation.