Good governance involves far more than the power of the state or the strength of political will. The rule of law, transparency, and accountability are not merely technical questions of administrative procedure or institutional design. They are outcomes of democratizing processes driven not only by committed leadership, but also by the participation of, and contention among, groups and interests in society- processes that are most effective when sustained and restrained by legitimate, effective institutions. In practice the governance movement will encounter major pitfalls. While we know bad governance and its effects when we see them, good governance has no universally accepted definition, much less an agreed master plan. Some efforts have been strikingly effective, while others have had little benefit, have wasted finite resources and opportunities, or have done more harm than good. What are the major challenges to be anticipated, and what mistakes must we avoid?
1. AVOID EXCESSIVE LEGISLATION AND REGULATION.
In attempting to improve policy and implementation it is tempting to rely too much on laws and top-down policymaking. Controls on administrative, fiscal, and personnel systems can become so strict that managers cannot manage and elected officials cannot get their programs implemented. Discretion can be reduced to such a minimum that cases with any unusual aspects take weeks and months to be resolved. The resulting inflexibility wastes resources and opportunities, produces policies that are unresponsive to social realities (thus eroding the credibility of good-governance efforts), and can increase incentives to corruption. There is a need for policies that increase the space for debate and consultation, encourage innovation, and pursue desired outcomes with positive incentives rather than through prohibitions alone. Procedural controls may generate massive amounts of information, but if it comes in forms that only other officials can understand, or if it is generated predominantly by citizens’ giving information to government rather than government opening up to citizens, transparency is not aided and people are unlikely to develop a personal stake in reforms.
2. REMEMBER THAT POLITICS IS A PART OF GOOD GOVERNANCE
The controversy and delay that often accompany open political debate may seem an unaffordable luxury, or indeed a serious problem, in societies seeking to enhance the rule of law. Too many reformers view governance primarily as a set of technical administrative tasks, and public participation as either a proforma exercise or a process to be orchestrated from above via high-profile, but short-lived, mass campaigns. In either scenario citizens have little opportunity or incentive to participate in any long-term way, or to link official promises to the problems of their own communities. Civil society, where it exists, can and should help define the ends and means of governance reform, benefit from its successes, and claim part of the credit for initiatives that turn out well. Open debate airing real differences, while engendering some controversy, can elicit sustained participation—particularly if it has clear-cut effects upon the decisions and policies eventually implemented. In both established and renewed democracies citizens will be the final arbiters of what is, and is not, credible governance reform; thus it is important to involve citizens and NGOs in the shaping of reform agendas from the start.
3. BUILD BROAD-BASED SUPPORT FOR REFORM
There is no doubt that governance reform requires lasting leadership and commitment from above, and that identifying reform “champions” is an important early stage in providing such leadership. But such initiatives cannot be effective if they are confined to blue-ribbon commissions that hand down proclamations, or to a “one-man show” model of reform. Even though it takes time, effort, and resources, and even though it will involve sharing the credit for improved governance, it is far better to get out into communities, learn about popular concerns, and build a broad base of support.
4. PAY CLOSE ATTENTION TO PROBLEMS AND CONTROVERSIES
As suggested, issues of concern can mobilize popular energies and commitment far more effectively than can “good ideas” alone. Without effective sorts of connections, citizens will see few links between the rule of law, transparency, and accountability on the one hand, and the concrete problems of everyday life, and they will not develop a sense that change for the better requires their own support, participation, and compliance. Reform leaders who cannot demonstrate broad-based and deep social support will find it all the more difficult to sway officials and interest groups sceptical about, or openly opposed to, reform. Actively corrupt figures will take such a lack of support as evidence that the reform movement will be short-lived—and often, they will be right. Over time, high-profile efforts that do not succeed will lead to public cynicism, and will make the next round of reform even more challenging.
5. PAY CLOSE ATTENTION TO INCENTIVES
Governance reforms often emphasize public goods, such as efficiency, honesty, cultural empathy, and the like, to the exclusion of private benefits. Other kinds of appeals—that better governance would cut taxes, make it easier to find jobs in a revived economy, protect one’s family and property—receive too little attention, even when the goal is enlisting the participation and support of civil society. As a result, good-governance efforts encounter collective action problems- people decide that if reform improves governance for anyone it will do so for all, and thus that their own efforts are inconsequential or even unwanted. Extensive efforts must be made to persuade citizens, government functionaries, and political leaders that they stand to benefit from reform—that is, to create the sort of sustaining stake in reform noted above.
6. PUBLIC OPINION MATTERS—in many ways. All of this suggests that even in emerging democracies reformers ignore public opinion at their peril. Surveys and community meetings to identify what people believe about the current state of affairs and expect of reform are essential. So are sustained efforts to educate the public about key problems, the justification for proposed changes, the costs of better governance, and actual results. Public education can also change citizens’ conduct by encouraging them to resist exploitation by officials or by other citizens, to file useful reports of problems, and to obey new laws and procedures. Technical improvements to government operations such as new budgetary and procurement procedures may be impressive. But if people do not think such measures will give them better police service or cut down on time lost in dealing with bureaucrats, then key sources of support will have been lost. The public’s reform criteria may well be achievable: better road repairs, an end to demands for bribes by the police, and fairer and more equitable tax assessments might be examples. Moreover, success at those levels can win support for more ambitious governance reforms, and the patience and tolerance needed for them to take full effect. But if reform leaders are not aware of what citizens think of when they hear words like “reform” and “good governance”, credibility may quickly be lost.
7. STRENGTHEN CHECKS AND BALANCES
While a measure of coordination among segments of government is essential, it is only part of the picture. Government must also be able to check its own excesses. The judiciary is essential to interpreting and enforcing new laws and standards, and if it is not independent of the government of the day it will be ineffective. Similarly, executive agencies require oversight, and here legislative scrutiny and credible external “watchdogs” can enhance effective policy implementation and check abuses. An ombudsman system to which citizens can make complaints and reports may also be valuable, but citizens must be confident that they will not face reprisals and that their reports will be taken seriously. These sorts of oversights and controls must be active, consistent, and sustained; if invoked only in emergencies or in the wake of failures they will be of little benefit.
8. NEVER UNDERESTIMATE OPPOSITION TO REFORM
Many governance problems result from a shortage of resources or a lack of state technical and political capacity. But others persist because someone benefits from them, a fact that reformers cannot ignore. Serious reforms may encounter increasing resistance within government, or from segments of the public, to the extent that they begin to gain “traction”; yet it will be at precisely those points that active support from top leadership and from civil society may be most important. Transparency and accountability problems are particularly likely to persist because of vested interests in government and society, and reformers must be aware that at times those resisting enhanced transparency and accountability will go through the motions—filing reports, producing data, carrying out reviews and assessments—in ways that actually conceal rather than revealing and attacking governance problems. Here too, outside monitors—auditors, legislative oversight bodies, investigating judges—will be essential.
9. THINK IN REGIONAL TERMS
Neighbouring societies and governments may well be coping with similar problems and constraints, and may be finding ways to adapt rule of law, accountability, and transparency mechanisms to new and complex situations. In addition, few of the problems good governance is intended to attack are contained within national boundaries. Sharing ideas, experiences, and resources, coordinating rule-of-law functions on a regional basis, and peer review of governance procedures can all contribute to reforms appropriate to social realities, and can make better use of scarce resources.
10. STAY FOCUSED ON THE LONG TERM
Too often governance reform is a short-lived issue. This is particularly the case following a crisis or scandal; once matters settle down it is easy to conclude that all is well and governance problems have been fixed. Particularly with respect to the rule of law and its social foundations, governance reform will take a generation or more, not just a few months or years. Much the same is true of transparency and accountability too, in the sense that agency, political elite, and civil service “cultures” may need to be changed. More rapid progress may be possible in those areas to the extent that individuals can be replaced and the incentive systems of institutions overhauled. Even then, however, bureaucrats will need periodic retraining, elected officials will need continuing information on governance problems (and continuing incentives to fix them), and citizen support will be required over the long term. Here too, public education will be an integral part of any effort to deepen the rule of law, and to improve transparency and accountability.
(The author is practicing physician at Acharya Shri Chander College of Medical Sciences and Hospital Jammu besides being an Activist and Educator at Unacademy. E-mail: [email protected])