Civil society’s role in governance
Horace Levy's article 'Government can't do it alone' (Gleaner, March 31, 2015) raises important issues about our democracy, especially in an age when its traditional modalities have been eclipsed by both social communication technology and a much more informed, alert and demanding citizenry. Our conventional democratic processes and, in particular, the practices pursued by our political parties have not caught up with this new paradigm.
The increasing alienation of the citizenry from the political process is reflected in the declining level of voter participation from 87 per cent in 1980 to 53 per cent in 2011. Much of this is driven not only by dissatisfaction or disappointment but, perhaps of more importance, a sense of powerlessness. It is within this context that there has emerged in recent times a new source of representation or, more accurately, citizens representing themselves, known amorphously as 'civil society'.
Representative groups are not new to Jamaica. The Chamber of Commerce can trace its origin to 1779 and both the Jamaica Teachers' Association and the Jamaica Agricultural Society can claim to have existed for more than 100 years. There are many professional associations that have enjoyed considerable longevity. We have always had community-based organisations focused on matters affecting their respective communities and government has actively promoted the establishment of community councils and parish development committees.
All these bodies have pursued clearly defined interests for the specific benefit of their members, however much those interests, it may be argued, have been congruent with the national interest. What is new is the emergence, within the last two decades, of groups of citizens to advocate and pursue issues that are no less relevant to them than they are to the wider population.
Mr Levy is correct in stating that politics has moved from the purely representational towards the participatory. It is an important new dimension of the concept of 'government by the people', which has developed without much discussion as to how it is to find expression and have impact. These groups differ widely in size, structure, method of operation, credibility and influence. A few have established membership with robust internal democratic practices and operate with some level of transparency.
There are others, however, that enjoy just as much public exposure, but with which the public can associate only one or two individuals and whose annual general meeting, if such a thing is ever held, could fit comfortably in an ATM kiosk. Wherever along the spectrum they fall, they are all exercising the freedoms guaranteed under our Constitution and none must be restricted or fettered in any way.
There are issues that arise, however, when, as is increasingly the case, they want 'a voice in the decision-making', to borrow Mr Levy's own words. Don't get me wrong. I support his view that much can be accomplished by "the State letting go its traditional role of sole authority and sharing it with citizens". How that sharing is to be done and how those citizens with whom it is to be shared are to be chosen is the issue that Mr Levy has not addressed, although, as someone who is passionate about participatory democracy, he must have considered.
As it is now, a civil-society group whose members are sufficiently well known or have assured access to the media or powerful entities in business or the Church is far more likely to be called into the decision-making room than one whose ideals and commitment may be no less valuable but are not so well connected.
I suggest that this question has to be addressed in order not only to rebut those who Mr Levy cites as questioning their legitimacy since "they never ran and won an election" but, more important, to safeguard these civil-society groups from being seen now or at any subsequent time as privileged groups pursuing an agenda defined by a few but occupying a seat at the decision-making table as representative of the wider society.
MP Raymond Pryce was sharply criticised when he proposed legislation to regulate "civil-society groups, special-interest groups and lobby groups", citing the danger of "tainted sources of funds or hidden agendas". He brought that wrath upon himself in the wording of his resolution and especially as the political parties have not yet subjected themselves to such requirements.
the right to participate
With the exception of the USA, Canada and the European Parliament, I can find no democracy that lays down any statutory rules governing the operations of lobby groups, individuals or entities that seek to influence government decisions. I would not wish to see Jamaica join that minority, eminent though it is, for however benign the intention of those rules may be, they inevitably lean too much on the fence of freedom of association. Yet the concern reflected in Mr Pryce's motion must not be disregarded, especially since we are talking about not just the right to lobby or exert influence but the right to participate in decision making.
We have developed a useful and proven mechanism of having the governor general make certain executive appointments that it is felt should not be left in the hands of the government of the day. The kind of participatory government of which Mr Levy speaks, however, is much broader than that. Participation by civil society can take different forms: consultative, advisory, decision-making or monitoring. The Economic Programme Oversight Committee, for example, monitors; the Electricity Sector Enterprise Team's mandate is much more than that.
In the absence of some procedure to validate the 'representativeness' of these civil-society groups, it is the government that must ultimately determine which groups are to be invited to participate at the decision-making table, fraught as much as that is with the danger of arbitrariness or real or perceived bias. And it is the government that must ultimately be held accountable for the decisions that they participate in making.
But in view of the important role that they are increasingly playing in both governance and governing, Mr Pryce's concern for openness and transparency is very relevant. This 'formalisation' cannot be imposed by government, but the legitimacy and representativeness of civil-society groups would be greatly enhanced if they imposed it on themselves and, by so doing, establish standards by which each and every one could be evaluated.
The Jamaica Civil Society Coalition, while not an umbrella group, is an alliance of umbrella organisations that could develop a framework for the accreditation of civil-society groups, establishing minimum standards for membership, access, internal democracy, disclosures, etc. This would not deny anyone the right to proclaim himself the spokesman or chairperson of the 'Vigilant Citizens Alliance', but it would enable the public and, indeed, the government, when someone claims to speak on behalf of a group of citizens, to better understand for whom he or she speaks, how he or she came to be so authorised, and what ought to be expected from their participation in decision making.
- Bruce Golding is a former prime minister of Jamaica. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.