Sun | Jun 13, 2021

Trevor Munroe | Becoming ‘good’ at good governance

Published:Sunday | May 9, 2021 | 12:20 AM
Professor Trevor Munroe, executive director of National Integrity Action.
Professor Trevor Munroe, executive director of National Integrity Action.
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This past week, I had the good fortune, on behalf of NIA, to present and share perspectives at two important virtual forums. One was on the theme “Linking Good Governance to National Development”, sponsored by the JAMP and the PSOJ, with the support of the European Union. The second commemorated World Press Freedom Day (May 3) and focused on “Access to Information as a Public Good” and was put on by the Media Institute of the Caribbean with the support of the US Embassy in Kingston. Each was well attended by good-governance advocates largely from the private sector and from the media. It was satisfying to contribute to continuing collaboration among the private sector, civil society, the media, and international development partners in discussing ways to make governance serve our people better. One important conclusion was that collaboration and advocacy need to be urgently strengthened to correct continuing deficiencies in governance.

Of course, we reminded ourselves that much was good and needed to be acknowledged:

• Jamaica is among the top performers in the world on press freedom.

• Jamaicans, along with Mexicans, are most aware in Latin America and the Caribbean of their rights to request information from the government.

• On some key performance indicators in our Vision 2030 National Development Plan targets set were being met, for example, life expectancy and the annual inflation rate.

• Exceptional performance by key public agencies, such as the Office of the Auditor General, in reports highlighting the positives and negatives in ministries, departments, and agencies.

• Continued efforts by our journalists despite frustrations in successful use of Jamaica’s Access to Information Act.

• The outstanding performance of the National Health Fund in developing operational procedures to ensure transparency, accountability, and exemplary service delivery.

THREE ELEMENTS

The formula emerging from these examples of good governance has three elements:

1) Citizen engagement to stand for right against wrong.

2) Sustained partnerships to strengthen political will.

3) Transformational leadership to embrace change.

This is the formula now urgently required to:

• Raise levels of public satisfaction with Jamaica’s democracy above the abysmally low 32 per cent.

• To bring Jamaica, for the first time, above the pass mark of 50 per cent on the Corruption Perception Index.

• To improve our rank on the Human Development Index above 101 out of 189 countries.

• Increase our ranking on the Global Competitiveness Index above 80 of 189 countries.

• Most of all, to strengthen our Commitment to Reduce Inequality, which now puts us at 120 of 158 countries.

Towards these gains, the formula needs to be applied to two areas, discussed last week, critical to enhanced accountability and increased transparency: the reform of the Parliament and the strengthening of access to information.

First the Parliament/legislature. We the public and conscientious MPs must speak out and stand up against continuing gross dereliction of duty. Let us be clear. Two of the three co-equal branches of government – the executive and the judiciary - now have codes of conduct; the Parliament has none. The Code of Conduct for Ministers is set out in Minister Paper 19 of 2002. The Guidelines for Conduct of the Judiciary were developed in 2014 and are to be found on the Supreme Court’s website. So ministers, judges, along with teachers, university academics, lawyers, doctors, civil servants, and many other vocations can be, and many have been, sanctioned for gross misconduct because they have appropriate codes and guidelines. Not so parliamentarians!

NEGLIGENCE CONTINUES

This negligence continues despite the fact that in 2009, Jamaica’s Vision 2030 National Development Plan, agreed on all sides, urges the need for “guidelines with appropriate sanctions as well as roles and responsibilities of members of P,arliament to ensure effectiveness and accountability”. Twelve years later, and nine years from 2030, despite promises from successive leaders, there remain no such guidelines. Public passivity must share the blame. That silence must now end. We must come together and demand that Vision 2030 be fulfilled in respect of the Parliament. We must use all the opportunities provided by one of the freest media in the world and by civil society organisations like NIA and JAMP to:

• Call for early debate and establishment of the Joint Select Committee to receive public recommendations on the Impeachment Bill now before Parliament.

• Partisanship or neglect must not be allowed to kill this initiative or allow it to suffer the fate of the first Impeachment Bill, which simply disappeared from the Parliament.

• Demand that the Parliament meet more often than for a few hours once a week so as to take Private Members Motions, answer questions on the Order Paper more promptly and clear the backlog of critical legislation, for example the Sexual Harassment Bill and the Regulations to the Public Bodies Management Accountability Act. The latter, piloted by the Minister of Finance and Public Service, would make boards less prone to cronyism, nepotism, and lawless management of taxpayers’ money.

• Insist that important reports and recommendations from Parliamentary Commissions, like the Integrity Commission, and from Sessional Committees, like the Public Administration Appropriation Committee, be taken within 30 days of being tabled, as proposed in the JLP Manifesto of 2016.

• Urge parliamentary leaders, in conjunction with civil society, to develop, monitor, and report on key performance indicators. The Strategic Plan for the Jamaican Judiciary 2018-2023 and quarterly reports on the performance is one template of how this may be done.

Regarding transparency in governance, we must never forget that without effective access to information, we the public remain completely in the dark regarding what the authorities are doing whether positive or negative with taxpayers’ money, with our security, our schools, our hospitals, our roads, etc. Fortunately, we now have an Access to Information Act. Twenty-twenty-two will be the 20th anniversary of its passage. It will also be eleven years after both sides agree on changes to make the law more effective. Yet we have allowed little to be done to strengthen our access to information. Now is the time to insist on recommendations made then and to demand others:

• The repeal of the Official Secrets Act. This law, passed 110 years ago, was designed not only for government to keep secrets from the public, but as has happened recently, to intimidate civil servants who see wrongs from reporting it.

• The unit set up to oversee the operations of the Access to Information Act must be transformed into a statutory body to develop and enforce guidelines.

• Stiff sanctions must be applied to responsible officers in ministries, departments, and agencies who frustrate journalists and the public by delaying responses to requests beyond what the law allows without adequate explanation.

• After ten years of their existence, Cabinet documents must be reviewed to establish whether the public interest in disclosure outweighs the public interest in keeping the documents secret.

Heed the conscious lyrics of Protoje: “Come teck a look inna Jamaica/ Injustice with the place now/ If what you see nuh really phase you/ Den you a di problem that we face to” ( Blood Money ). We cannot afford to be the problem. We have to be a part of the solution.

- Professor Trevor Munroe is principal director, National Integrity Action. Send feedback to info.niajamaica.org or columns@gleanerjm.com.