From the Editor’s Keyboard

Open Government and Citizens’ Right to Complain

22 February 2013 at 17:35 | 1135 views

Titus Boye-Thompson, Guest Writer, Freetown.

A democracy tends to thrive on the level of engagement between its citizens and those who govern them. The maxim that democracy is “Government for the people by the people” holds true in its sincerest import when Governance is made more easily accessible to those who are its beneficiaries. Sierra Leone is amongst other African states striving to implant a democracy that is tailored to the needs and aspirations of its peoples and in so doing, succeeding Governments since the civil war that plagued the Country have sought to build institutions that will secure that active engagement and participation of the people in the affairs of governance. In the case of Sierra Leone, there has been a slow transition at first in moving from a situation of outright war and anarchy to a fragile peace. The carnage of war and its brutality in Sierra Leone convulsed the international community and challenged the consciences of humanity the world over to inveigle the assistance of international partners to intervene forcefully in bringing the conflict to an end and then to support the country in its efforts to sustain its peace. The efforts and commitment of the citizens to move away from the conflagration of war resulted in a focused management of that fragile peace. Since the end of the war however, the political dispensation that underpins the fledgling democracy has faced its own challenges including the institution of governance structures that are tasked with monitoring the Government of the country on behalf of the citizenry.

There is a subtle difference between Government and Governance that though not the subject of this treatise, nonetheless need some clarification. Government refers in greater part to the machinery upon which decisions of state are interpreted and implemented whilst Governance is the existence of a mechanism by which those who govern are made accountable to the governed. In essence, Governance tends to point to a procedure for engagement between the state and its citizens whilst Government is the body identified as that responsible for ensuring that laws are obeyed, taxes paid and money spent on everybody’s behalf.

In the interchange between the machinery of Government and conduct of Governance lies the vast ground for the citizen’s right to complain. That ground is often laden with failed dreams, burnt out aspirations, missed challenges, forgotten promises and abandoned projects. In the milieu, politicians and Government functionaries exist abrasively with the people, the ordinary people on whose behalf policy decisions are implemented, to whom promises are made and above all, on whose behalf all taxes collected and spent are done. Democracy dictates that on a regular basis, the people are allowed a chance to make a choice on who is best able or equipped to represent their interests, who is best able to build a dream that they would wish to follow or upon whose shoulders they would heap their aspirations for development.

In a simplistic way, the above is an attempt to outline the ramifications of Government, the process of policy and decision making and the essence of governance. Within this interplay, also exist a fundamental right of the citizen to know how decisions are made and taken on their behalf. When a situation exists that buttressed this engagement between the people and those who govern them, then we are well and truly embarked on the road to open Government.

No democracy will exist without rancor or the aggravation of individuals or even a community in relation to how they see the performance of the Government’s duties, the performance of public functions or otherwise the way and manner in which Government operates in retrospect. The essence of open Government is to solve a lot of issues that can be legitimately raised and in a manner that is reflective of a genuine engagement between the complainant and the Government department or public service complained about. The existence of a procedure to complain should make Government more accountable to the people by ensuring that the process of decision making and public engagement is transparent, free to engage through public consultations and fair in the allocation of resources such that every sector, region and community benefits. It is that understanding of how to complain that forms the bulwark of an open Government structure.

President Ernest Bai Koroma would go down in history for his role in opening up Government by a wide margin when compared to others who have preceded him, has made public accountability more of an obligation than a lip serving exercise and has been visionary in setting up institutions to correct the imbalances that had hitherto existed between the Government and the people. In essence, he has put a cogent meaning to the term open Government, specifically by instituting the Open Government Initiative(OGI) and by empowering the OGI to be reflective of the aspirations of the citizenry, forceful in taking Ministries, Departments and Agencies(MDAs) to account and dexterous in the interpretation of the term “transparency in Government.” To have done this takes a spirited commitment to improving the way things happen in this Country and a resolve to bring Government closer to the people. The day to day administration of this vision itself benefit from the strong leadership and drive exhibited by its current Director, whose style, approach and character has made the functioning of the OGI a singular beacon in the delivery of public service. That the OGI Director sees herself firmly placed on the side of the Citizenry is an implicit reason for the good performance ratings that the Unit enjoys.

In the interplay therefore between the citizens and Government, the issue of the citizens’ right to complain is one that can be considered an inalienable right, alongside the right to free speech and freedom of movement and association. The right to complain does come with a succinct obligation which is underscored by the expectation that any complaint ought to be serious in intent, cogent in content and focused in its reasoning. Given the plethora of options available within a functioning democracy, a citizen has a right to complain either through the Courts or through internal complaints procedures within the respective MDA. Otherwise, the Office of the Government’s Ombudsman is a relevant point whilst the Open Government Initiative (OGI) exists as a point of reference to which matters concerning the functioning of Government Institutions can be forwarded. In essence, the Citizens’ right to complain is a function that is embedded within the OGI and its operational construct. Consequently, it is incumbent on the OGI to forcefully proceed with its objective to assert the Citizen’s aspiration to have a say in how they are governed. Creating a platform for the citizen to “HAVE YOUR SAY” in Government embellishes that right of the citizen to exercise its terms of engagement with Government and opens up Government to internal scrutiny at a level that has thus far been unheard of in this Country.

This Country enjoys a growing democracy, one with a much improved human rights record, devoid of political intimidation or imprisonment of political opponents and journalists without due process. In fact, since assuming office, this President holds a record of not presiding over the incarceration of political opponents and journalists. Such are the freedoms enjoyed by the Country that there has to be a cautionary note whenever political innuendos are made that cast aspersions on the good name of the Presidency. It then becomes the duty of those charged with defending the integrity of the high offices of state to react and swiftly rebut such baseless insinuations that the Presidency would contrive to deceive or otherwise make false promises. President Ernest Bai Koroma has worked very hard for this Country so as he has vowed to do more for Sierra Leone, it may do well for the citizens of this beloved Country to support him by having some patience as the matters of a fractional public service delivery system are addressed, properly and without rancor.