Can governments be made more accountable?

The overarching feature of a functioning democracy is that it has an effective system of checks and balances in place.

This system ensures that government and related public institutions are held accountable for decisions that they take and for the consequences of these decisions. In principle these must be in the national interest, and if they are not, then those responsible must bear the ‘cost’ thereof.

However, as governments change, we seem to see the same pattern follow on, despite the electoral promises for remedial changes and doing things differently – better and smarter. The renewed pledges for transparency, meritocracy and competence soon give way to the old habits of annointing cronies, relatives, political sponsors and agents and so on. Raising of voices through the media and other forums soon seem to peter out as the government forges on regardless.

The scenario seems to be repeating itself. Having spent nearly two years with little results to show, the government seems to be prioritising the same game others have played in the past. It is going to the public to secure public support for its actions. The same appeal to socio-cultural organisations across the board as in the past, the same elevation being given to them as inevitable forces in the layout of political power.

So, we appear to be heading again to politics of old – not on the deeper issues with which the country should be really concerned.

Looking back at the history of the country, there have been politicians with exceptional commitment to a better future for the country and its citizens. Whatever they have achieved has come through the independence and strength of public institutions implementing policies fairly and squarely in the ‘public interest’. They may on occasion have gone on a collision course with some of the political masters but this has always been in the ‘public interest’. Eventually it has actually helped these same politicians to show a positive balance sheet across the board when facing voters again.

Sterling qualities of governance – much before the notion of good governance gained popular currency – made everybody accountable, even while a government was midstream during its mandate. Bad things were rooted out – or prevented from happening — before the harm was done. Parliamentarians used all their skills to dig out facts which mattered from the government side and expose abuses, if any. It was difficult for politicians to enrich themselves enormously at public expense because the limelight of public scrutiny was cast on them well in time.

The media was feared as being capable of taking an uncompromising stand against what they considered went against the public interest and was abusive. Public opinion was not then easily captured one-sidedly through the media by political and private vested interests. There was debate. The judiciary, on its part, always stood as a last rampart against political abuse.

Thus, even in the absence of a Freedom of Information Act, mechanisms existed to make decision-takers accountable and embarrassed if they misbehaved at any point in time during a government’s mandate. Politicians must have figured out that strong public institutions stood in the way of their being able to do as they wished.

Thereafter, not only were public office holders brutally disempowered by changing the Constitution to make them liable to be fired if they did not comply to the diktats of politicians in charge. The public institutions were themselves overwhelmed by sundry political appointees who were ever ready to kowtow to and do the bidding of the politicians. This was invariably not necessarily for the good of the institutions or for protecting the ‘public interest’.

Having thus undermined the control they would otherwise have been subjected to for each and every decision they imposed on the public institutions – and via them, the private interests they were meant to protect or promote – politicians put themselves virtually beyond accountability. If anything, their nominees were accountable for wrong decisions taken to the detriment of the ‘public interest’; it was not the politicians who had pressed for their appointments. Besides, who cared when the boards or panels those nominees formed part of were disbanded with each swing of the political pendulum at Government House?

The question that arises is: can a system of checks and balances operate to prevent costly and harmful decisions being so endorsed and executed for the benefit of a few? The same few who in the first place influence such self-gratifying decisions by public institutions or institutions in which the public sector has majority control, including state-owned enterprises? One cannot wait for an overshadowing government’s term to finish for holding it accountable for dubious decisions taken.

People will make a hue and cry against irrational and abusive decisions if they know about them before it is too late. Moreover, such a hue and cry will be effective provided public instances deal with reported cases of abuse without delay, and stop a mala fide proposed action before contractual relations are firmly fixed for acquiring or disposing of assets by the public concerns.

Such proactive impartial moves would even have prevented many citizens from finding themselves behind prison bars on so-called “provisional charges”. But we are more concerned here about commercial decisions which have negative implications for the country and public undertakings but benefit those pulling strings from behind. The country cannot afford to acknowledge wrong decisions taken only to finally have taxpayers assume their associated costs well after the real authors guilty of the guided misdeeds have departed the scene for good. A redress mechanism that will act in real time to prevent abuses is very much needed.

M.K.

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