Four months after Public Utilities Minister Marvin Gonzales described the Water and Sewerage Authority’s (WASA) management as convoluted, ineffective and unaccountable, there are plans in the pipeline to cut its managerial staff.
Of the 426 managers currently on WASA’s payroll, Gonzales has confirmed that an unknown number of its managerial staff will be sent home in the coming weeks.
WASA will seek funding from an international lending agency to pay the affected managers their severance which is expected to costs taxpayers millions of dollars.
The news comes weeks after a report of the Cabinet sub-committee appointed to review the operations of WASA found that the cash-strapped organisation had become unproductive, unwieldy, corrupt, unresponsive and overstaffed, while its efficiency was sacrificed for political patronage.
The move to downsize its managers is all part of the authority’s restructuring exercise.
“Of course, yes, I would not mince words to say that there wouldn’t be a shake-up. There must be a further shake-up…a managerial shake-up. You cannot move forward with a management team of 426 managers. It is unworkable. It is untenable. When we interviewed some of the senior executives in WASA they complained about that structure. As a matter of fact, they told us in no uncertain terms that the management structure is unworkable and has contributed to the deterioration of the organisation,” Gonzales told Guardian Media in a face-to-face interview at his ministry’s head office in Woodbrook.
Gonzales said WASA must be able to streamline its managerial staff to ensure accountability, efficiency and better service to its customers.
Organisational structure requires four levels of management
He admitted that WASA’s leadership has become exceedingly top-heavy and its chain of command injudiciously and long.
“No other water company in the world has so many layers of management. There must be cuts at the managerial level to ensure you have a proper management team in place and to hold those under their charge accountable,” he insisted.
The report stated that Cabinet in 1999 approved a “four-level managerial staff” structure for WASA, consisting 172 employees.
The four levels are a CEO, comprising six directors who are supported by seven general managers, 32 managers and 126 supervisors in 17 major divisions.
However, WASA’s current management structure has eight levels—comprising eight executive management directors, 19 executive management heads, 32 executive management (senior managers), 88 departmental managers, 25 assistant managers, 35 section managers, 23 unit managers and 126 supervisors—bringing the total cadre of managers to 426, which represents a “248 per cent in excess of the approved structure,” the report revealed.
The report further pointed out that the current structure is relatively horizontal with a very narrow span of control.
“This is further complicated by the six levels of management exclusive of the supervisory level. The inordinate large numbers of deputy assistants and unit managers that has crept into the system challenge both staff and management to coordinate activities and projects while simultaneously adhering to the lines of authority. WASA’s leadership hierarchy is now twice that of the standard organisation practice. The current structure does not provide for effective control, supervision and accountability,” the report stated.
It further revealed that the limited span of control permeates to all levels of the structure, making it impossible for WASA to effectively manage its staff, affairs and deliver on its mandate.
To change this, Gonzales said WASA’s executive director Dr Lennox Sealy will put together a management team that will be responsible for managing the transformation process and crackdown on the authority’s decline.
Costly separation packages
Questioned where WASA will obtain cash to pay the managers severance benefits, Gonzales said they will ask international lending agencies “for assistance to finance separation packages after the audit is completed and the appropriate staff level is settled. This will save the country billions of dollars and this saving will be put towards improving the levels of service across the country by the use of technology and other modern systems.”
Pressed if WASA had approached the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) for funding, Gonzales said, “we are speaking with the IDB now and they are willing and anxious to assist. They believe we are on the right track, finally.”
The separation packages, Gonzales said will come with a heavy price.
“It will be costly. That is the price we have to pay for bad management and corruption. WASA was like a ship lost in a vast ocean of corruption, mismanagement and nepotism. And those whose responsibility it was to address the problem shied away from it by telling the country it was metering and leaking pipelines are the real problems. Today, taxpayers have to spend hundreds of millions to save billions.”
Managers on month-to-month contracts receiving bonuses
Gonzales spoke about some of the managers whose three-year contracts ended in 2016.
These managers were placed on month-to-month contracts and have been the recipients of bonuses and given substantive positions within the organisation.
“So that is a nightmare that we have discovered in the organisation.”
Gonzales said he expects the three unions representing WASA employees to fight back.
He said the Cabinet sub-committee which he chaired concluded that there was an “unhealthy and incestuous relationship” between the unions and WASA’s management which posed a serious governance problem to the operation of the authority.”
For months, Gonzales said successive management teams have proven powerless to the union’s encroachment on the authority’s right to manage, direct and own its operational affairs while there has been no demonstrable evidence of urgent and decisive action being taken on multiple fraud investigations.
Apart from the close relationship management shares with the unions, Gonzales said the issue of additional commuted overtime was also cause for concern.
PSA president Watson Duke, by letter dated October 21, 2014, requested payment of additional commuted overtime hours to an industrial relations manager at WASA, who is a senior PSA member.
In the letter, Duke justified the request for overtime.
However, Gonzales said he was not surprised by Duke’s request which he described as scandalous.
“Therefore, decisions are being made, or were made rather, against the best interest of the authority that constituted, as far as I am concerned, a breach of fiduciary responsibilities that members of management ought to have with the authority as well as undermining the public’s interest,” Gonzales said.
When the previous WASA board tried to stop the manager’s commuted overtime, Gonzales said he sued WASA but lost the matter at the Industrial Court.
“So where do we draw the line between your responsibility as a manager? Where do we draw the line with respect to your responsibility as a union representative? Where do you draw the line with respect to your fiduciary duties?”
The report also uncovered the use of vehicles paid for by WASA that were assigned to employees and unions officials who collected travelling allowances—a case of double-dipping.
He said a lot of these arrangements took place between 2010 and 2015 under the then People’s Partnership administration.
“Even those collective agreements that were signed. You would be surprised to know that those payments you are referring to are payments that our collective bargaining agreements did not cater for. So, they were made outside of the collective bargaining agreements. The vehicle allowances…the overtime payments.”
Gonzales held the view that some of WASA’s managers had “sold out to the unions. They sacrificed the efficiency of the organisation to the unions. There were deals between management and the unions.”
Those sweetheart deals were stopped by the previous board.
WASA also paid rent for PSA and the National Union of Government Federated Workers (NUGFW) vehicles to perform duties that had no connection with the authority.
Phone bills for some of its workers who were on full-time union duties were also paid for by WASA.
Gonzales said what took place at WASA was outrageous and ludicrous.
Gonzales: Everybody was just eating a food and having
a good time.
“Because everybody was just eating food…everybody was just having a good time. It was just wildness taking place in the organisation against the interest of the people of this country and costing this country millions of dollars.”
Another issue the report raised was that the unions had been providing goods and services to WASA.
This led PSA’s president Watson Duke to admit that his wife’s firm Blackstone Engineering Technologies Ltd had been the recipient of several WASA contracts.
Between 2014 to 2016, WASA paid Blackstone Engineering $9.8 million while the company is owed $3 million.
Gonzales said bad work ethics, corruption and wrongdoing have been accepted as the norm in WASA.
On the heels of the sub committee’s report came another shocking document—a 2016 Internal Audit and Compliance Department Summary report which accused a senior WASA manager of seven allegations of misconduct.
It found that WASA paid $1.1 million in overtime to six PSA officials between 2013 to 2016, while union officials of the NUGFW also collected retroactive payments of foregone overtime of $726,000.
The manager was also accused of acting in breach of the authority’s mandate to reduce staff between 2014 and 2015 to the conditions of a loan with the IDB which established funding to the tune of $360 million for a Voluntary Employee Separation programme.
Instead, during this period, WASA hired 1,474 new employees, some of whom did not have national identification cards, were not interviewed, possessed no qualifications and lacked proper documentation.
This led to WASA’s overall salary cost to increase from $130 million to $157 million.
While WASA’s current workforce is 4,828, the report stated the State-owned company has been operating by more than 3,152 employees.
Individuals paid $15,000 bribes to secure WASA jobs
“It tells the level of corruption and lack of accountability at WASA. Persons were brought into the organisation by the hundreds not satisfying the qualifications requirements…not having proper job descriptions, contracts of employment, not having their national ID,” Gonzales disclosed.
For years, Gonzales said staff levels at WASA had been fabricated.
“So, persons were illegally brought into the organisation receiving a salary and not being qualified for those positions. But I have received anecdotal information that a number of those persons paid to be employed within the organisation up to $15,000… to be employed within the organisation…paid persons within WASA to be employed without having the requisite qualifications. There are a number of managers who are employed in management positions who are not in alignment with their qualifications so the whole thing is in disarray…upside down.”
The bribes offered were to secure low-level jobs.
“So, the board, Cabinet and ministry did not have a close as to how many persons were truly engaged in the organisation.”
Gonzales said WASA started to haemorrhage due to some of the illegal things happening within the organisation.
Every year, WASA pumps $2.5 billion into WASA which generates little or no returns.
Though the manager was fired in 2017 for his wrongdoings, Gonzales said he was left untouched.
“Why wasn’t civil action taken against him? Why wasn’t this matter referred to the T&T Police Service back then? The report has been in existence since 2016. Again, it points to governance and management problems with the organisation. So, you can connect the dots.”
Politicians blamed for WASA’s decline
Gonzales blamed some of his predecessors for WASA’s poor state of affairs.
“You have to be laser-focused on the issues and you have to be prepared to lay blame where blame is rightly due. I also lay blame and cast blame on a lot of politicians who played the game by getting people inside the organisation who they damn well knew was not qualified to take up some of these positions. The only reason why they are in the organisation is because of their political allegiance and they are not doing what they are being paid to do… and some of these employees are the worst employees in the organisation because they believe they got their job because of the support of politicians and therefore they should remain there.”
Guardian Media sent Duke a Whatsapp message regarding his commuted overtime request.
Duke, however, read the message but failed to respond.