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In Search of a Lasting Legacy – MIST under Hon Jonnie Swartz

William Shakespeare once said “No legacy is so rich as honesty.” For Hon. Jonnie Swartz, the man at the forefront of a ministry that has been faced with myriad challenges, trials and tribulations, his quest to leave a lasting legacy at the Ministry of Infrastructure, Science & Technology seems impossible. The ministry he has headed for the past four years has seen its darkest days, and there may yet be more to come. Who can forget the numerous projects lying incomplete across the country, cordoned off or pitifully falling apart brick by brick only a few years after being officially opened to fanfare?

The Dibete Police Station was classified uninhabitable within three years of completion. The National Stadium, although now open, took three years to renovate when initial projections had put the project at under a year while the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport is still cordoned off and late last year the roof was blown off by mild strength winds before it was even complete.

So to hope for a lasting legacy or to even be remembered positively under these trying conditions seems a tall order even for a Minister known for his honesty, openness and readiness to admit mistakes, something unheard of for most of our political leaders. Swartz is notorious for memorable candid moments such as his repeated admissions that some in his ministry were colluding with contractors to defraud government of millions. It therefore seems that if there is anything to remember him by, it is his honesty, which makes for a distinct and potentially game changing legacy by our industry standards.

Johnnie Swartz came into the Ministry to discover a building on fire that he has been trying to put out ever since and which he will leave still engulfed in flames if he does not make it back to the ministry after this year’s election. To add to his woes, he also inherited a ministry with a history of massive expenditure just as the global economy was going into recession. MIST has seen its budget dwindle significantly in recent years, a situation worsened by the fact that the budget is shared by MIST and at least three other Ministries.

The government’s total freeze on all new projects meant Swartz had to somehow use a shoe string budget to keep an overly government dependent industry afloat while also trying to bring under control costly corrupt practices and an ill-suited procurement and project management system which relied on private consultants to undertake almost all public projects. As Swartz told us during an exclusive interview with Boidus Focus, “We had to change the whole system, take the powers of managing projects back and show them (the private consultants) who the boss was”. These efforts to take back control from the overzealous private consultants created the need for a new project management strategy based around project audit committees to be formulated and fast track implemented. He points out that these Audit comities have saved government millions of Pula in public funds.

The Project Management Office will soon be extended to the private sector again but this time around it will be through an Agency within the Ministry which will oversee coordination of all government construction projects. All this is part of an ongoing restructuring of the Ministry to ensure its execution of projects is well coordinated with all other ministerial stakeholders and is done in conjunction with the private sector.

For the past three years government has turned its focus, as far as the construction industry is concerned, to maintenance work but one has to wonder at what the overarching basis behind these maintenance projects could be. Is there any policy on maintenance or ambitions beyond just physical upgrades of existing buildings? Are there any other intended benefits apart from ‘repairing’ buildings, such as perhaps skills base development or the sustainable upgrade of government buildings?

True to his nature, Swartz quickly acknowledges that there probably ought to be some guiding principles on the maintenance focus and highlights that he hopes the current review of building regulations by his ministry will bring out solutions to some of these issues. He also notes that his ministry is working with PEEPA to review government’s project procurement systems. Currently, government ministries’ stakeholders operate in silos, with each ministry procuring its own projects and assistance in putting in place measures for guiding any maintenance of projects to safeguard our building heritage and conserve of our culture in buildings.

The main challenge that has hampered the maintenance drive thus far has been a lack of oversight on exactly how many and to what extent government buildings need maintenance. Swartz reveals that his Ministry has engaged Deloitte and are also working with BOCCIM to undertake stock taking of state government projects which need maintenance.

Is Project Allocation through Rota System a Spoon feeding Culture?

The commencement of the maintenance projects has also seen the return of the infamous Rota-System of project allocation. This is a system where consultants are put on a rota form through which they get awarded work on a basis of their turn or a toss. We ask the minister why this system is back in use after its previous misgivings and also whether he doesn’t think it promotes a spoon feeding culture? “Honestly I wouldn’t know. Maybe it’s spoon feeding because people don’t have go to great lengths to get work. We look at the register to select but then the selected consultant would still have to qualify for the work. Even so, we all have our own interpretation on these things.”

He also discusses the need for local contractors to help themselves grow and develop necessary skills to compete for bigger jobs. He wonders why local consultants are not forming alliances and consortiums in order to amplify their skills pull and compete for bigger projects. “Do we really need 50 architecture firms, and this many consulting firms in such a small economy as ours? Maybe consultants need to come together and form consortiums.” He highlights that although as government they can assist the industry by making basic work available, local contractors have to aspire for less dependency on government support.
He notes that in regards to procurement of the so called mega projects, the long awaited unbundling of these projects has started and the first projects to be unpacked under this system include projects in Mmadinare and Mahalapye.

He also notes that his Ministry has started assisting youth owned construction companies with the hope of building their skills base and assisting them grow into reputable companies. “To date, we have disbursed P100 million worth of projects to youth owned constructions companies and this year P32 million worth of projects h already been awarded to youth owned contractors so far.”

The Chinese Contractors and the rampant corruption in the Industry

We put it to him that there is concern that the arrival of Chinese Contractors is seen as the root cause of most of our industry’s failures, including corruption and failure to complete projects. The number of projects that have been awarded to Chinese Contractors only to run into problems is scandalous; these projects range from airports to schools to stadiums to police stations and many others.
Swartz responds thusly: ‘The Chinese came as contractors and not necessarily as consultants so we can’t now think that it’s only the Chinese. They might have seen a little loop hole and used it and maybe we didn’t really do our work which we have now taken back control of. And then ‘yes’ when the Chinese came they got most of the jobs because they were lower than others in cost. But you must remember that it can’t be the Chinese alone involved in this mess, as they say it takes two to tango’.

Regulation Professions in the Construction Industry

Hon Swartz speaks most passionately about his work in trying to bring the construction industry into a professionalised and regulated sector. Earlier on when discussing issues of allegations of corruption and professionalism, he delves into tactics he has had to use in efforts to get the industry in line and bring to him a draft guideline for a Construction regulating body. “As a farmer who is used to saying things as they are, I sometimes had to use direct language in face to face confrontations with contractors to express my frustration at the slow pace of the formation of the envisaged construction industry regulatory body.”

The formation of an industry body is a task that has over many years eluded every minister that has attempted to do so. As far back as 2008, a report by the University of Botswana, commissioned by BOCCIM outlined in no ascertain terms that a Regulatory body was a critical component in bringing the industry’s challenges under control. Hon Swartz warmly implores that if there is anything he should want to be remembered for having achieved at the Ministry it is bringing regulation and self accountability to the construction industry. “I want this to be my legacy. If BOCCIM and the steering committee were to put the complete document which I know they are currently finalising, I will be taking it to the Attorney General for fine tuning and proceeding to present it to parliament. I will be presenting the amendments to the Architects Bill to Parliament this week; the Quantity Surveyors we have started and the Engineers Registration Board is already operational.”
For a man who prides himself as a farmer, one has to agree that should he see through the regulation of the construction industry, Swartz would have achieved quite a milestone that shall leave a long lasting mark on the industry as it tries to find its way back from the brink of collapse after the recession and attempts to wean itself off of government dependency. However, the challenges, problems and real rot of the construction projects and management systems of public projects will however need more than honesty and openness to solve. They will need even more than just a professionalised industry.

At best as a start, Minister Swartz would eclipse himself if he was to convince government to institute a commission of inquiry to investigate the true extent of the industry challenges including corruption, collusion and lack of professionalism, and public funds lost in all incomplete and abandoned projects. The inquiry would of course not only look into projects procured under MIST, but broaden its scope to include all public construction projects including civil structures and local Government projects. The inquiry would provide a clean slate on which the industry can move forward, put into perspective the Minister’s successes and failures during his time in charge of MIST and perhaps give him the lasting legacy he desires.

© 2014, Boidus. All rights reserved.


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