Monday 22nd September, 2008

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In July, 2006, when the Government announced its plan to move its social services to the new Smart Card system, this newspaper lauded the initiative, but there were reservations.

There is much to commend the Smart Card as a means of trickling down the wealth of the country to those who need it most.

The card was offered with value limits of TT$300, $400 and $500 per household, depending on the number of persons in each eligible home.

Tobacco and alcohol products were specifically disallowed as products that could be purchased with a Smart Card, and it was expected that monthly reports from First Citizens Bank on Smart Card use would be reviewed for discrepancies.

This was a good plan, but one that would be still vulnerable to abuse by those who were determined to extract the value of the cards in ways and in circumstances that were not intended.

The success of the Smart Card system was always going to be tied to the level of diligence and the commitment to transparency that would be necessary to keep the system faithful to its intent, and the Social Development Minister of the day, Anthony Roberts, was cautioned in that editorial to be particularly careful about policing such infringements.

It seems appropriate to repeat that caution for Dr Amery Browne, who is now responsible for the government’s social development and catchment programmes.

The last thing that Dr Browne should oversee is the descent of the Smart Card system into another means of political patronage.

It should only be necessary to mention other appalling lapses in government programmes, such as the shadier dealings of the Unemployment Relief Programme and the reputed HDC Ghost Gangs to make it clear that the Smart Card, as valuable as its potential might be, can easily make the short journey from laudable initiative to public embarrassment.

Our Sunday Guardian report offers examples that suggest that there is clear, if not necessarily widespread, abuse of the system, with instances of each family member is a household carrying their own Smart Card and properly employed persons supplementing their income with the financial instruments.

Things have slid some distance from the noble heights of the 2006 launch when the card can now be referred to as the “Smartman Card.”

The Social Development Minister simply cannot preside over a situation in which people who do not need these financial services feed at the trough of government generosity, while those for whom the instrument was devised cannot get access to this crucial lifeline of support.

And let there be no mistake; the responsibility for this potential debacle belongs properly at the door of the Ministry of Social Development and its political leadership.

It’s time for the minister to leverage the “smart” aspects of the card to make use of modern technology and track down the bad apples that threaten to spoil this barrel of well-intentioned government support.

The exercise of controls that can be built into the card to track down the identities of users and cross reference their status as employees in the tax database would be a first, admirable start in taking the monitoring of government largesse into the digital age.

The response of Gilma Jack, national director of the Targeted Conditional Cash Transfer Programme, the oversight monitoring body for the programme, that client registration monitoring would involve lengthy and readily circumvented site visits is untenable, given the basis on which these cards were introduced.

The taxpaying public has a right to expect that the technology smarts in these cards would play a role in ensuring that their use is legitimate and in alignment with the objectives of the Ministry of Social Development.

A door to door evaluation of Smart Card use suggests thinking that is better-suited to the monitoring systems of the 19th, not 21st century.

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