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Transparency & Public Accountability: Easier Said than Done

Dickson Igwe. Photo: VINO/File
By Dickson Igwe

At a recent political meeting in idyllic Virgin Gorda, Virgin Islands, the New Chairman and First Elected Leader of the Grand Ole Party admitted that in past years his organization had not been good at listening to the cries of Joe Public. For this he apologized. He promised greater sensitivity to the public’s demands if elected leader of the country.

This was good politics. It reminded this writer of a similar promise made by the incumbents when they were first elected, and during the last election campaign. There was a promise of ‘GOVERNMENT IN THE SUNSHINE’ in early 2012. Skeptics will state that this is the modus operandi of all politicians. They promise ‘Heaven on Earth’ when out of office. Then once in office it is ‘business as usual.’

Now, public consultation is a close relative of transparency. Public consultation opens a door to transparency. Transparency allows the public access to information for which in a free democracy, with the rule of law, creates trust in public institutions.

Consequently transparency, which is usually accompanied by accountability, is a precondition for good governance. Public institutions that work effectively act to ensure their own transparency and accountability. Or more cynically put, they are able to create a perception of their transparence and accountability in the mind of the public.

Public agencies, and even private organizations, that adopt a culture of transparency and accountability generate public trust. Transparent agencies that are rewarded with the public’s trust find the road ahead free of unexpected potholes and dangerous ditches.

A government that is transparent and publicly accountable is trusted. Institutions that guarantee transparency in a free democracy include the courts, legislative bodies, an independent public service, law enforcement, regulatory agencies and the media. This article partially assesses the role of the Virgin Islands media in ensuring government transparency and public accountability.

In the Virgin Islands, the media has not been an aggressive defender of transparency in government. There is a reason for that. Beat reporters and most professional journalists are usually expatriates. They are concerned about the visit from the immigration surveillance officer, or the man from Labour.

Fearless journalism is a rare commodity in the Virgin Islands. Speaking truth to power is a rare event indeed. The ‘’outspokenness’’ of popular commentators is not fearless journalism. Why? Well, scratch the surface. Below the hot rhetoric on this or that matter frequently rests the preservation of self interest, the personal agenda, and the avoiding of matters of serious controversy. ‘’ WATCH YOUR BACK JACK,’’ is norm for most commentators.

This is so because in life, every action has a reaction. But in a small country of 25,000, action and reaction is exponentially greater than in a large populous country.

The link between action and reaction is short and swift in a tiny country. In a massive country with a population in the tens of millions, one will hardly ever meet the subjects of one’s stories around every street corner, and at the ubiquitous church or social gathering.  But in the Virgin Islands, a controversial opinion journalist only needs to walk down Main Street to get his just desserts, after penning a hot story.

OK. A walk down Politics Avenue is requisite. The following story asserts that transparency in politics is a virtue. Why? Because transparency creates that equally valuable commodity: TRUST. A government that is trusted stands a good chance of being given a second term by Joe Voter.

Now, many moons ago, towards the end of the first year of the present ruling party, this Old Boy sat down to lunch with a friend and key player in the present government. Both men enjoy the chit chat of politics and the associated intrigues.
Yours truly warned his friend at the time that public perception was everything in politics.  And that the promises of PUBLIC CONSULTATION so very much heralded during the election campaign by his party were increasingly being disregarded by Julius Caesar.

The intent to introduce a culture of transparency, as stated by the incoming government at the end of 2011 was a great idea. However, less than 12 months into office, and transparency was no longer a new way to be celebrated. In fact, politics was swiftly returning to the old normal. These were his assertions at the restaurant table. His powerful friend totally agreed.

This wannabe political analyst further warned his friend that the public would not tolerate this reverse of the party’s promise of transparency and public consultation. His friend agreed with that statement as well.

A few weeks later, a response from a blogger on the matter of public consultation in an online story went like this: ‘’ CONSULT FOR WHAT? This is a government. They were elected to govern, not consult over every blasted thing.’’

This spectator of political football believes that this was from a strong supporter of the ruling party. It made him fully aware that transparency and public consultation had been placed on the back burner. Or at the very least, these virtues were being reconsidered.

To be continued

Dickson Igwe is a current affairs columnist and scholar of strategic leadership. Connect with Dickson Igwe on Twitter and FACEBOOK.  

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