THINGS are not always what they seem to be. To start with, every government that we elect promises to govern with transparency and accountability, and every Opposition usually takes the government to task for failing in this regard.
An example of this is a press release from the UWP of October 29, 2015 (stlucianewsonline), accusing the then SLP administration of misleading the public on the economy, and insisting that “St. Lucians must never accept such behaviour from a government that claimed to uphold honesty, transparency and accountability when they took office”.
But, following the change to a UWP government in June 2016, training on governance for Cabinet ministers and senior government officials was provided in January this year. In addressing the opening session of that workshop, Prime Minister Chastanet is reported as saying that “words like ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability’ are often used but completely misunderstood” and that they are “not properly defined” (stluciatimes, January 24, 2017). What, then, did that UWP press release mean?
In an interview at that training workshop, Prime Minister Chastanet indicated that “when we talk about transparency, it’s about understanding the process (by which) we’ve arrived at a decision. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you reveal all the information that you have. But it’s to reassure everybody that everybody who’s supposed to participate in a decision is, and that everybody is actually doing their job”.
We beg to differ with our Prime Minister, and suggest that transparency in government requires both the full release of information, except in limited and defined circumstances, and clarity of process.
The first issue with the Prime Minister’s view on transparency is that of just who is to decide what information is to be made available to the public, and when.
The second issue is that even if the Prime Minister can himself mentally clear the hurdle of transparency in his definition, he falls flat on the issue of accountability, as it is impossible to assure accountability in the absence of the full disclosure of information.
We would welcome discussion of these matters by our professionals, but while we wait, we turn again to Google, and paraphrase a useful definition of transparency as being: “In a free society, transparency is government’s obligation to share information with citizens. Information on how officials conduct the public business must be readily available and easily understood” (ballotpedia.org). Note that transparency is an obligation, not a discretion.
Ballotpedia may not carry the necessary weight, and so we turn next to a paper written by Monica Bauhr and Marcia Grimes of the Quality of Government Institute, Department of Political Science, University of Gothenburg, Sweden, entitled “What is Government Transparency?”, published in December 2012, (qog.pol.gu.se/publications/workingpapers).
In describing the “Dimensions of Transparency”, the paper laments “that there are currently no commonly agreed upon definition(s) of the concept of transparency”, and continues with “Transparency is a multifaceted concept that is often conflated with accountability or even corruption, impartiality and rule of law”. This statement helps to explain our Prime Minister’s suggestion that transparency and accountability are misunderstood. As we see, it is not that they are misunderstood, but rather that transparency is a broad concept, and accountability is often added to it in discussion.
That Bauhr/Grimes paper continues with: “Transparency is sometimes more narrowly defined as “the release of information which is relevant for evaluating institutions”, adding that “a key component of the definition is the emphasis not only on the provision of information, but also the ability of external actors to demand and gain access to information not provided routinely by political and administrative institutions”.
Transparency International, (transparency.org), defines transparency as a “Characteristic of governments … of being open in the clear disclosure of information, rules, plans, processes and actions”. The definition continues with: “As a principle, public officials, civil servants,… have a duty to act visibly, predictably and understandably to promote participation and accountability and allow third parties to easily perceive what actions are being performed”.
Transparency International defines “Access to information/Right to information” as being “The right by law … to access key facts and data from the government and any public body based on the notion that citizens can obtain information which is in the possession of the state”.
And on accountability, Transparency International defines this as the “concept that individuals … are responsible for reporting their activities and executing their powers properly”. Not only must activities be open to scrutiny, they must also be reported.
And so, if we return to the Prime Minister’s definition of transparency, we find that transparency is much more than just an understanding of the process by which a decision is arrived at, as he describes it. Transparency also requires the dissemination of information, by government, that would allow citizens to understand the basis on which decisions are taken, not simply the process by which they are taken, (i.e. who attends what meetings).
With regard to what information is made available to the public, Government cannot be its own watchdog.
Next week, a look at the leap required.