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Democracy, Transparency and Accountability of Governments

Democracy, Transparency and Accountability of Governments
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By Bimal Julka; Central Information Commissioner

This is a reproduction of a speech delivered by Mr Bimal Julka, Central Information Commissioner (CIC) at the National Defence College, New Delhi

India’s neighbourhood had always been a concern of priority for the Government. The entire region has been preoccupied with its own domestic challenges and therefore a comprehensive strategy is required aimed at enhancing stability and security within the region.

Today, the world over, there is recognition amongst Governments of the importance of a coherent and effective neighbourhood strategy for enhancing political, economic and cultural ties and minimizing the potential for conflict. India is an important actor in the geopolitics of the South Asian Region and a strong peaceful and prosperous ecosystem is in the interest of India. Effective communication strategies are necessary in this dynamic and evolving geopolitical situation within the region.

The South Asian Region constitutes India’s immediate neighbourhood and is vital for its security and prosperity. India’s growing economy presents an opportunity for regional integration and building of connectivity to the benefit of all countries in the neighbourhood. At the same time, given India’s numerous security challenges, military power will remain an integral and interwoven aspect of its overall foreign and security policy in future.

Our environment is a fast-changing and complex one. There are no easy answers; it is very easy to criticise from the side, but it is not easy at all to find the right answers. Every major decision and every major policy is not an exercise in finding the absolute right answer. Instead, it is always an exercise in making the right judgment – not a hard right or hard wrong – but a balanced one that serves the best interest of the majority and the country as a whole. Judgments always have to be revisited; what seems to be sensible now, may in a few years’ time no longer be sensible. You have to be prepared to constantly change.

Governance is described as the formation and stewardship of the formal and informal rules that regulate the public realm, the arena in which the state as well as economic and societal actors interact to make decisions. Governance can be used in several contexts such as corporate governance, international governance, national governance and local governance. The governance elucidates the mechanism an organization uses to make certain that its components follow its established process and policies. It is the primary way to maintain oversight and accountability in a loosely coupled organizational structure. Many theorists defined the notion of governance in recent times. The UNDP Strategy Note on governance for human development described that the governance is a system of values, policies and institutions by which a society manages its economic, political and social affairs through interactions within and among the state, civil society and private sector. It is the way the society organizes itself to make and implement decision achieving mutual understanding, agreement and actions. It consists of the mechanism and processes for citizens and groups to articulate their interests, mediate their differences and exercise their legal rights and obligations.

The key factors embedded in the role of governance at national and local level include education, health, security etc. which are public goods to be provided by Central and Local Governments. The share of GDP managed by government is positively co-related with the level of country’s development. Performance of government is a central component of governance and prerequisite for its successful development.

In India Six benchmarks of democratic governance were defined as under:

1- Free and fair and timely elections.

2- Transparency and accountability of all institutions of the State.

3- Efficient and effective delivery of socio economic public services.

4- Effective devolution of authority, resources and capabilities.

5- Rule of law where legal rights were clear and understood and legal compliance and enforcements of those rights is time bound and swift.

6- Needs and interests of hitherto excluded sections of society are privileged and included with dignity.

Several reports have indicated that the Government of India is following a set of standards for reforming governance in the nation which are essentially citizen centric transparency, accountability and efficiency of all institutions, agencies and actors of the Government with particular attention to those citizens who had been excluded, so far. Governance is the exercise of economic, political and managerial authority to manage accounts affairs at all levels.

Some of the characteristics of governance are as under:

1- Participation: Participation by both Males and Females is a major factor for good governance. It can be established that representative democracy does not necessarily mean that the concerns of the most susceptible citizens in society would be taken into consideration in decision making. Therefore, participation needs to be informed and organized.

2- Rule of Law: Good governance requires impartial legal structures that are prescribed neutrally. It also requires full defence of human rights particularly those of minorities. Impartial enforcement of laws requires an independent judiciary and an impartial and incorruptible police force. It primarily means that decisions taken by government must be founded in law and that firms and individuals are protected from arbitrary decisions. Reliability entails governance that is free from distortionary incentives through corruption, favouritism, patronage or capture by narrow private interest groups, guarantees personal rights and achieves some sort of social stability.

3- Responsiveness: Governance needs that institutions and processes try to serve all stake holders within reasonable time frame.

4- Consensus Oriented: Good governance necessitates intervention of various interest groups in the culture to reach a broad agreement in a society for the benefit of whole community and the way it can be accomplished. It also captures broad and long term perspective for needs of sustainable human development.

5- Equity and inclusiveness: The welfare of a society depends on ensuring that all its members feel that they have a stake in it and do not feel that they have been excluded from the main stream. This requires togetherness of all groups to maintain their wellbeing. Transparency is broadly accepted as a major principle of good governance.

The UNDP has perceived that transparency means sharing information and acting in an open manner. Transparent systems have flawless procedures for public decision making and open channels of communication between stakeholders and officials and make a wide range of information available. It represents the decisions taken and its enforcement is done within the purview of established rules and regulations. It also entails that the information is easily available and directly accessible to those who will be affected by these decisions and its enforcement.

Transparency is required to make system of public service delivery effective. It allows ready information to the citizens in a manner that they may be able to claim their entitlements. It has been observed that freedom of information has been accepted uniformally across nations and in the immediate neighbourhood laws had been enacted to access documents that are in possession of Federal and Provincial Governments. In Srilanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan etc. oversight bodies have been constituted to empower citizens to seek information and that violations of law to be severely dealt with.

Accountability in Governance: Accountability becomes crucial concept in maintaining good governance. It means answerable for the performance of tasks assigned to a person, checking on application of laid down procedures, to ascertain the necessary capacity and resources required to accomplish the tasks etc.

Accountability evaluates the ongoing effectiveness of public officials or public bodies so that they are performing to their full potential, providing value for money in provision of Public Services, imparting confidence in the Government and being responsive to the community they intended to serve. Accountability is an approach to building trust and faith that relies on civic engagement whereby ordinary citizens contribute directly or indirectly in exacting accountability. Characteristically, in all government agencies accountability is specified in vertically upward manner. All government systems and agencies have elaborate practices and procedure for such upward reporting and answerability in respect of performance of designated tasks within the time and budget framework. Certain checks and balances exists in the form of statutory and other internal audits.

Link between transparency and accountability: Accountability is the harmonizing function of transparency, if system of governance is apparent enough, it would promote accountability. Transparency and accountability are related in its mission of an organization. It reduces occurrence of corruption, favouritism, nepotism and improved accountability of staff. Poor governance is increasing considered as a major root cause for all corrupt practices within the society.

In every civilization, huge percentage of national expenditure is wasted in corrupt practices. A related aspect of globalization can be described as a process of change stemming from amalgamation of increasing cross border activity and information technology enabling virtually instant communication at international level. Globalization also affects laws and regulations especially in terms of trade, import and export taxes, migration of foreign workers, SMES and other taxes and duties. It is essential that the Civil Servants have a neutral attitude to political belief as good governance system is a democratic system. It is participatory, transparent, accountable, equitable and it promotes rule of law.

Extremism has become the menace in several parts of the world which is an ideology considered to be far outside the main stream arrogance of society or to interrupt common moral standards. With the thorough appraisal of governance features it is found that enriched governance needs an integrated, long term strategy built upon cooperation between government and inhabitants. It involves participation of institutions.

Thus, the governance is a process of decision making by which the decisions are implemented and government is one of the actors in governance. Good governance must be responsive to administration and has fair legal system to provide protection to societal members. Poor governance can undermine the legitimacy of public institutions and interrupt policy goals.

India’s relations with its neighbours will depend upon developments in individual countries but also the broader trends which shape the region as a whole. Several critical drivers that may influence the South Asian situation can be identified. They include Demography, Internal Stability, Economic Growth, Energy Security, Climate Change, Food and Water Security, Terrorism and other external powers. Depending on how these drivers pan out, South Asia could see either cooperative or a conflict scenario. For a cooperative scenario to materialize, the rising population must be turned into an asset and the Demographic Dividend must be exploited through creation of educational and employment opportunities. There would be a need to invest in Social and Physical Infrastructure as well as greater regional cooperation. Energy shortages need to be overcome through investment in renewable sources of energy. The emphasis must be on inclusive growth and regional cooperation.

Absence of meaningful regional cooperation could lead to tensions and conflict. The Regional Integration in South Asia is limited, presently. This situation will most likely change in next 20 years wherein borders could become softer and connect rather than divide. This could present both challenges and opportunities. Although there is very little empirical evidence to suggest that good governance and transparency could lead to improvement in public services but thec studies carried out by the World Bank and Transparency International have suggested positive linkages between the two.

However, in some studies it has been observed that more transparency in the form of access to information affects governance and that the existence of such enactments have a significant positive trend in controlling corruption. The empowerment of citizenry had actually led to higher corruption conviction rate. Nonetheless, the majority of such studies have investigated co-relation and not causation meaning that lower levels of corruption may not necessarily be the result of transparency policies but could also be related to other factors.

In Bangladesh for example it was found that increased awareness and empowerment of citizens have supported poor and marginalized groups to access social programs and public services such as health and housing etc. Increased transparency for example in the educational sector led to better attendance of staffs in schools and help access teachers absentism and students dropout rates leading to effective reforms in schools involved. Similarly, improved governance standards were used to assess doctors and nurses attendance at health centres in rural areas for better health care facilities. In India the disclosure of the list of beneficiaries of the Government’s Social Programs (Unemployment, Gas Subsidy, Grain Subsidy etc.) has helped in identification of inconsistencies and wrongdoings in the program.

We are well aware that there have been cases where public officials have been expelled from the Government as a result of the reforms created through broader Civil Society Mobilization against corruption such as in India. There have been instances in several jurisdictions where through empowerment of citizens, information requests have been used to investigate the expenses incurred by the elected representatives.

Certain proactive disclosures by successive governments have resulted in enhancing supervision of governmental programs, spot inconsistencies and expose corruption and wrongdoings.

Therefore, there is a strong need for a solid legal framework, clear procedures and timely completion of stipulated tasks using technological tools as a solution to make the citizenry effective as a participant in the decision making process. Several International and Regional Treaties / Conventions have also covered the majority of these issues.

Dissemination of information utilizing various technological tools such as Internet, Radio, Public Libraries, Electronic media etc. have proved to be very useful for timely and proactive disclosures. A formal institutional architecture is also important to ensure effective implementation of various laws and regulations for the benefit of a common citizen. There is a need to train public officials in the formulation of policy programmes, awareness raising, training and capacity building to improve the dissemination of information and skill development.

The Public Officials need to be aware of their obligations and duties under the law. The oversight bodies such as internal and external auditors, Civil Society Organizations, media etc. are important to determine the accountability outcomes and broader governance improvement. The main focus of the group has to be on attaining better scores on World Governance Indicators such as Government effectiveness and Rule of law, dimensions of which measure characteristics such as quality of civil service, quality of policy formulation and implementation, the credibility of government’s commitment to such policies and the extent to which the civil servant are likely to follow and implement the letter of law.

It is a recognized fact that controls of any nature provide opportunities for patronage and rent seeking for both public officials and political actors, creating inherent incentives to resist the law. A strong accountability environment, active and engaged media and CSOs and adherence to the Rule of Law could address some of the challenges in the governance and effectiveness in performance evaluations of various countries.

Despite black swans, unknown unknowns, uncertainties, accelerating change, and there being no ex ante right answers, there is reason to be hopeful and optimistic. We should feel confident that despite the challenges we have to do what it takes to successfully bring our Nations’ move towards a Citizen Centric approach and well beyond.

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