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Special Feature

Re-defining Citizen’s Role for Building Democracy & Good Governance

As our nation strides systematically towards democratic rule, it becomes necessary for us as young political commentators to take a reflective look at where our country come from and give our contribution in what so ever way we can help build a democratic system for the better future of ourselves and generations to come.

Participatory government, consultation and transparency are today’s public policy exhortations. It is timely that they become more than what they wherein order to retort to contemporary expectations for the betterment of our today’s democracy. Our leaders over the period of time have been courageously working to deliver to some level per our societal demands, but one simple thing every government fails to inject is full disclosure of public information leaving the citizens to believe what so ever the air has to offer.

Strengthening the relationship between a government and its citizens might seem to be such an obvious priority for democracy and an indisputable alternative for citizen’s security. Yet governments everywhere have been criticized for being remote from the people, not listening enough and not seeking the full participation of the people ‘those who are direct victims national pestilence, hunger, corruption, and you name the rest’.

As a result of these democratic lapses, Street protests have grabbed most of the headlines, less spectacular developments have included a steady erosion of voter turnout in elections, falling membership in political parties in virtually every country that doesn’t encourage participatory government and declining confidence in key public institutions.

In 2005, less than three in five persons bothered to vote in our general and presidential elections, not more than 50% turned out in every bi election we have had since 2005.  Calls for greater government transparency and accountability have grown as public and media scrutiny of government’s action increase as a result of which government lately trying to breach its citizens to national happenings.

Not that consultation and participation never happen, they do.

But these efforts are too often focused on specific issues where public interest is already high, such as the environment, consumer protection ‘RICE’, and have not been imitated enough throughout the government system as an integral part of the whole democratic process. Health-care is another area where consultation and public participation appear to work well in several counties. But the pressure is now on how to spread this type of consultation and participation to all areas of government, budgeting, national and foreign policy, social welfare, concessions agreement, employment, sport and all other sectors.

These new demands are emerging against the backdrop of a fast-moving, globalized world increasingly characterized networks rather than hierarchy. Internet has opened up new frontiers in the independent production and exchange of information while providing a powerful tool for co-ordination among intellectuals and political commentators on opposite sides of the globe.

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Businesses have been among the first to capitalize on this new reality, while international civil society has not been far behind, but just next. Government has in contrast, been slow to reap the benefits of a network approach to good governance and is only now discovering the advantages of engaging citizens and civil society organizations in shaping and implementing public policy in order to do image keeping.

Citizens as partners

Engaging citizens in public policy-making allows government to tap new sources of ideas, information and resources when making decisions. All fine in theory, but where to start in practice? While we are yet to have all the answers, it is important that we closely scrutinize the issues and come up with some light on the way forward. The starting point is clear.

To engage people effectively in policy-making, governments must invest adequate time and resources in building robust legal, policy, public relations and institutional frameworks. They must develop and use appropriate tools, ranging from traditional opinion polls of the population at large to consensus conferences with small groups of laypersons. Experience has shown, however, that without leadership and commitment throughout the public administration, even the best policies will have little practical effect like the PRS.

The key ingredients for success in engaging citizens in policy-making are close to hand, including information, consultation and public participation. Information provided has to be objective, complete, relevant, easy to find and easy to understand. And there has to be equal treatment when it comes to obtaining information and participating in policy-making. This means, among other things, governments doing all they can to cater for the special needs of linguistic minorities or the disabled.  For instance, several countries including Canada, Finland and Switzerland have laws ensuring that information is provided in all of the country’s official languages making it easier for information dissemination.

The scope, quantity and quality of government information provided to the public have increased greatly over the past 20 years and legal rights to information are widespread among the above mentioned countries. Legal rights to consultation and active participation are less common. In some countries, such as Canada, Finland and Japan, the government is required to consult with citizens to assess the impact of new regulations.

But once these rights are in place, what then? Timing in public consultation is essential. Indeed, it should be as early as possible in the policy process. After all, people may be more angry and frustrated at being asked for input when a decision has already been taken than if they had not been consulted at all. Early on in preparing our Freedom of Information Act passed in recent time, the government has fail to conduct extensive public consultation on draft bills, public corporations, Concessions and other necessary issues that are intended to impact the citizenry.

Thank God today that there are widespread efforts to put more government information online and open up arenas for online consultation and Radio top show like speak to the president, Law makers and other functionaries of government. All of these are laudable initiatives, but they have their limits (not everyone is online or on Radio for a start), so when it comes to feeding citizens’ suggestions into policy-making, Internet or Radio is not enough on its own. However, we must appreciate the little effort.

Clear Roles of Government

The respective roles and responsibilities of the government (making a decision for which it is held accountable and on which its performance may be judged) and the citizen (providing input for the decision-making process) must be clear too. Citizens are not government; they elect it and want to be served by it.

But if they are to participate more than just via the ballot box, then they need proper access to information, meaningful consultation and opportunities to take an active part in policy-making. The government on the other hand must be clear from the start about its objectives in seeking the public’s views, as well as being careful not to raise unrealistic expectations like promising for the first ship to dock when your country is not bless with sea. People tend to accept the outcome of a fair process, even if it is not the solution they would have chosen. By recognizing that the time and effort citizens invest in being consulted by government is a precious resource, steps can be taken to improve co-ordination and avoid duplication across government units.

Building Democracy With the Citizens As Partners

The current difficult political and economic climate has led to talk about the return of government, not just as regulator and arbiter, but as a key partner in free-market economies, as well as provider of security, emergency services and defense for it citizenry. But its role in promoting political and social cohesion in keeping with our civilization has not been emphasized enough.

In our present turmoil, the point should not be forgotten that the strength of democracy lies in having active and informed citizens. Governments can no longer afford to provide incomplete information or just ask the public its opinions on matters that are fait accompli.

And while reaffirming government’s role is welcoming, it would be no good returning to old models of large, impenetrable, secretive public institutions whose establishment is on the contrary detrimental to the citizen’s survival. Transparency, public consultation and participation are more important than ever to improve policy and the reinforcement of democracy and stability.

While guaranteeing security, promoting open and transparent government, privacy and civil liberties are major challenges of our times; we must remain focus, courageous, constructively engage our government and recommend better ideas that will in return benefit all of us thus allowing our names to be recorded in history that we were there when the good seeds of democracy were entrenched.  Long Live Liberia!

About the Author: Togba Emmanuel, a Political Science student at the University of Liberia, a youth activist who has written a number of articles promoting democratic tenants in Liberia. Email: emantogba@yahoo.com Tel.: (+23) 16451886 / 77212636

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