November 8, 2011

For Government to be open, begin with open elections

In conclusion of his blog on Open Government Partnership, Ben Taylor (Daraja blog) recommended three priorities for fruition of the novel initiative in Tanzania:
  1. An open data platform for Tanzanian government data
  2. A right to information law, based on the MCT proposal
  3. A high-level directive to government agencies that requests for information should be granted
  4. Something else - what?
I agree with Ben; let me attempt the fourth priority.
A dashboard of contributions and expenditures of political parties’ monies during and after elections should be instituted.

The amount of money parties spend in an election partly reflects the risk they are willing to take to take over the running of the state.

Public office is critical in our democracy because it is not only an opportunity to serve the electorate, but to enrich oneself. Shame, but, it is true. Persons have amassed wealth by wielding power that come from their jobs in politics.

Parties spend colossal sums of money in elections, but none readily declares the source of their millions. When at last they do, it is after the registrar of political parties has squeezed them and the media have chorused repeatedly about their delays.

Still the information is not well publicized. Media reports superficially that a party has submitted its accounts to the registrar of political party. Is that all?

I believe that transparency in elections accounts will breed transparency in Government accounts as well. The bigger the noise will be about money during campaigns the bigger the noise will  be about developmental money.

I believe openness in financial contributions to political parties will inculcate a culture of openness at high level than a hundred talk shops to change organizational culture of hiding information in agencies of the Government.

Why do I believe so? Never in Tanzania are political office bearers and their opponents ever closer to citizens than during campaigns.

If financial integrity is brought into the picture during campaigns through timely reporting of election’s budgets and expenditure, then citizens will start asking practical questions. In turn politicians will begin taking accountability seriously. Why? Because they will have to satisfactorily answer questions from prospective supportive voters.

As of now accountability related issues such as cutting costs in Government, or fighting petty and grand corruption are only alluded to in order to gain political popularity.

But I should quickly add that transparency should not be the ultimate goal of initiatives taken under the umbrella of Open (government, budget, etc).

Rather, the ultimate goal should be accountability and citizen engagement. After being stifled in a governance structure that hides even the most basic information, we are likely to applause cool interventions like a government data portal as ends in themselves, but they are only tools to an end.

What is the use for a data portal when the internet is accessible to less than 5% of Tanzanians? And, less than 15% have been connected to electricity. Who will use the data portal? Intermediaries—NGOs and media, of course.

If I have to make a choice, I would go for a solution that puts information from district level and government agencies at the disposal of citizens who find it relevant to their lives.

The system is somehow available.  Almost every government agency have public relations officer. What are public relations officers from the president’s office to the district council doing? Gate keeping? Only gate keeping and organising national ceremonies—saba saba, nane nane, public service week, 50 years of independence and the like?

If only these public relations department were fully deployed citizen would not be pushing for transparency. Enacting a liberal freedom of information law is one side of the coin. The other is political willingness from highest office to the lowest.

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