Breaking Information Monopoly Key To Democratic Governance
The democratic and republican form of governance we are having in Nepal is to ensure that the real exercise of the state power is carried out by the consent and participation of the people. However, our inability to institutionalise the substance of democracy consistent to the spirit of the new Constitution enacted by the Constituent Assembly has posed hindrances in the realisation of the ideals of democracy.
Moreover, democracy loses its meaning and significance when structures and the possibilities of communication between the ordinary citizens and the state officials, who are in control of the governing mechanism and process, are skewed against the people.
Most crucial part in our political and administrative system is that the public officials hold, control and monopolise the public information. The public officials are not reponsive and accountable to the people.
Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz chooses to describe it as the asymmetry of information. He explains its consequence not only in economy but in political realm as well. Just as asymmetries give managers in a firm or corporation the discretion to pursue policies that are more in their interests than in the interests of the share holders. The asymmetries of information allow the officials who are in control of the government apparatus. They can pursue the willful and indiscriminate discretion to implement policies that are more in their interests than in the interests of the citizens.
Needless to say, access to all the citizens of the required information and knowledge, the meaningful and substantive participation of the people in the decision making process especially in producing public goods and services are some of the key elements of the democratic political power. More important in this respect is that the modern governments are required to work for the empowerment of citizens and promotion of their wellbeing. The latter should be endowed with democratic competence to engage with the state institutions to seek accountability and claim responsive services from the public service providers.
But the results are often found to be far from expected. Poor implementation and enforcement have been the key features of the governments. This is true not only in Nepal but also in many transitional democracies where the democratic institutions are yet to grow.
Nonetheless, Nepal enjoys an enabling legal framework to build a vibrant transparent access regime supported by participatory democratic process and mechanism even during this transitional phase. The new federal constitution provides key institutional infrastructures in this regard. The Constitution guarantees right to information for citizens. Similarly, legislations like Right to Information Act, Local Self-governance Act and Good Governance Act, among others, are in place to create supportive environment for democracy. They are, undoubtedly, important arsenals for a transparent, participatory and open democratic system. However, their implementation is weaker and poorer. As a result, public organisations fail abysmally to deliver. And it is paradoxical that they are not subjected to civic scrutiny, sanction and discipline for their non-performance and poor results.
The informed discussions on the policies being pursued and projects being implemented are hardly the case. Absence of the informed democratic discussions, deliberation and inputs has created the glaring agency problems both at the local and national level in Nepal. This agency problem has been further compounded for lack of elected national and local governments for a considerable length of time. As a result, accountability deficits have outgrown to rupture the democratic relationship between the citizens and the government. The cases of the blatant misappropriation of resources and the abuse of authority both at the local and national level have been its consequences.
The legal and institutional frameworks like the Right to Information Act and the Local Self-governance Act can yield positive results only when they are effectively implemented and put to practice in an ambient social and institutional setting. It is a fact that the institutional design for transparency and accountability is not sufficient in itself to produce the desired results. They should be coupled with awareness, knowledge, capacity and willingness of the participants and stakeholders. In this case both the government officials and citizens should be ready for information sharing and the democratized positive engagement. But this is utterly lacking.
Needless to repeat, Right to Information law provides a compelling framework for information disclosure - both government held and generated – across all levels and tiers. The information may be related to budgets, planning documentation, contracts, procurement, and government organizations, projects and their operations and so on.
However, this has not been implemented and the accountability system is very weak in structural and functional terms. Both the citizens and government officials are not fully aware of its provisions and lack competence and know-how as to how to use and do the rich harvest of them. Moreover, political willingness is utterly lacking and the culture of secrecy reigns dominant.
Nonetheless, at a time when the government seems interested to introduce and implement Social Accountability tools like social public auditing and public hearing across the government system. Right to Information law should be enhanced as the process and tool for vigilant citizenry. Similarly, through an enhanced communication between citizen and state participatory governance system needs to be strengthened in tandem with the provisions of the Constitution, the Local Self-governance Act and other legal instruments. This will not only enhance integrity and probity in the political and administrative system but also strengthen local service delivery system.