25 September, 2020


Good Governance The “Dirty Word” Dissected Out From The Micro To The Macro Level

By Harendra de Silva

Vidyajothi Prof. Harendra de Silva

There is nothing but absolute remorse when we recall the phrase ‘Good Governance’ in Sri Lanka also known as “යහ පාලනය” in Sinhala. What happened? Is it a new or an extraordinary concept? At all election’s politicians coin Melodramatic and romantic phrases that are often rhythmic and would entice the public to vote them in by giving hope of a rosy CHANGE in governance and well-being (material and qualitative)! Some examples are: ධර්මිෂ්ට සමාජයක් (A righteous society), සුභ අනාගතයක් (A Prosperous Future) and සැබෑ වූ වෙනසක් (A Real Change). All these slogans talk about CHANGE and enmeshed in these slogans are/were: safety from terrorism and foreign occupation, promise of Food, petrol or other commodity/material concessions etc. Therefore, it is sensible to surmise that; Like all other slogans in the past (and possibly in future) ‘Good Governance’ was nothing but a romantic phrase used to lure people to vote. Unfortunately, like previously, 99.99% of the advocates themselves nor those who voted or even rejected it did not comprehend the exact components. The advocates probably did not want to understand what it meant, since all they needed was power and once achieved – forgot the principles on what swept them into power! It however, betrayed the slogan itself confirming poor Governance! Always to deceive the voter!

Interestingly, similar slogans have been used Internationally.

* A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage. – Herbert Hoover 1928

* America First –Warren G. Harding, Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot in the 1992, Donald Trump in his inaugural address.

* Building a bridge to the 21st century. – Bill Clinton 1996

* Change we can believe in – Barack Obama 2008

* ¡Democracia Real Ya! – (Real Democracy Now!) Used in the 2011 Spanish protests

The universal plea/s in Political elections are: A change for the better, or material benefits from Bread, Rice, Cloth, Laptops, Internet or Gold bracelets/Chains etc

Governance is quoted by William Gladstone Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, (for four terms 1868 -1894). “Here is my first Principle of foreign policy. Good Government at Home!”. Paradoxically it was his ancestor David Gladstone High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, who in 1991 was accused of interfering in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs and was made ‘accountable’ for poor governance by one of our presidents! It would also be questionable whether the process of accountability was transparent or not!

“Governance” is not new, it is an age-old concept. “governance” involves decision-making and the process by which decisions are implemented/or not implemented including and beyond government. It can be applied to Government in general, it’s different components in Administration/ Ministries/ Departments, Judiciary, Police, or within any “Organization” such as religious groups or political parties, Civil Society, the market (big or small). Although not documented, I believe the principles are applicable to a family Unit as well, which I will explain later.

Let’s get the theory First

It traditionally has eight major components, although it may differ in different groups. It should have a Participatory approach with all levels and members contributing; In this process, efficient, equitable (impartial) and inclusive decisions to develop Consensus which means: when such participatory decisions are made there should be discussion and agreement at the top and other levels; Transparency in these decisions and actions is another important component. Accountability is one of the most important components, since person/s taking such decisions and actions are held responsible either positively (rewarded) or negatively (Punished) and be accountable to rules and regulations, including laws, and this is when the other component lack of Impunity or the rule of law is applicable. At the conclusion it should assessed whether the results were responsive and effective. Although not mentioned in the usual descriptions, I feel that in this Process, Monitoring is an Essential Pre-Requisite at every level and Transparency can reduce the need for Monitoring as well as Accountability would minimise Impunity. Of course, most of the components are inter-related and cannot be considered separately.

I believe that: without going into all the details we should always consider the main concepts of Transparency, Rule of the Law (lack of Impunity), Accountability and Monitoring aspects without which the process cannot function, but keep in mind the other processes when necessary.

Governance is not complicated; everyone will acknowledge the familiarity and say “this is obvious stuff, what is he trying to tell us?” Unfortunately, although we all know it, we don’t understand it in a way to practice it properly. Take the political context out, don’t romanticise a phrase without understanding it! We always want others to follow good governance either at the top or the bottom, but not us/me!! 

Is Good Governance applicable only to governments or to Companies, Institutions, Family or Individuals? Basically, everyone has to be transparent in their actions and be accountable to any lapses, with the rule of law effective at every level. Yes, it means everyone! We as Individuals, should be transparent to ourselves, with our Parents, Siblings, Partner, children or friends and Society. We Should act within the written and unwritten Norms & behaviour set by family, friends, Society and Laws established by Government. We all should be Accountable (or face consequences) to ourselves, the parents, siblings, friends, society or Government. Be Transparent at home, our school, workplace, and be answerable to the Monitoring mechanisms of our performance and or be Accountable to any queries by our supervisors. For Effective Performance of Family, Society from Grassroots up-to the Government at the top; It is imperative that everyone is transparent and acts to the rule of the Law and is made Accountable. Although not explicitly mentioned and though often negatively attributed, accountability can be positive as well: Punished negative behaviour, reward admirable performance. 

It is not necessarily Politicians who cause poor Governance! Going back to the family unit, a dysfunctional family is due to poor governance at a micro-level within the family unit. But the macro dimension of the state has also failed in not taking responsibility for education, providing skills and provisions to bail them out from the vicious cycle. The state’s monitoring process has not picked up the lapses to correct it or there are no effective mechanisms in place! The enforcement of the law on compulsory education, Drug addiction, alcoholism or domestic violence/child abuse, often present in dysfunctional families has been inadequate or non-existent! How does transparency come in? What are the monitoring systems in a family? What are the laws that apply at this micro level? Who is accountable in these processes? 

The Mother and Father are at the Apex of this micro unit; then the extended family members in the middle and at the bottom of the Pyramid are the children. At the bottom; monitoring is by parents or extended family by Keeping an eye on the children (or even by older siblings) Grades and performance in school. Complaints or observation of fights, positive or negative behaviour are examples of monitoring. Children should be taught to be transparent by being truthful and rewarding positive behaviour. In terms of accountability ‘discipline’ comes in- positive or negative. However, punitive discipline will never allow a child to be truthful (transparent). Then, he or she will lie to avoid painful (to the mind or body) experiences. How then would you discipline the child? This itself is another topic; basically, positive discipline with praise when good and depriving things such as TV or toys for a brief period such as ‘grounding’ may be appropriate for negative behaviour (deprivation of food is not allowed). Transparency, social norms (law) and Accountability are things children should learn early in life resulting in self discipline.

Mother and father would be monitoring each other! The Extended family may do the same but with bias or envy! Examples would be each other’s Infidelity tainted often with paranoia with or without evidence. Each other’s bank account, credit card expenses, telephone logs, drinking, smoking, behaviour such as violence. If there was Transparency, there would be less need for monitoring. Hidden folders in computers with porn, or telephone numbers with fictitious names or even passwords (with justified exceptions) the family does not know are acts of lack of transparency. The Rule of the Law would be social and family norms, only when it goes to extremes should the Judicial norms be necessary. Accountability, would be in the form of sane discussion/arguments followed by agreements and in the extreme instances court intervention. However, very often extrajudicial dictatorial acts of presumed Accountability would be domestic violence, injury and even murder. This aspect is important to understand, since either spouse would justify making the other spouse accountable beyond family, social or legal norms, which runs parallel to impunity and dictatorships. However, such action would be accountable to the judicial system although in many instances, injuries go without documentation. 

At a higher level, religions do talk about transparency, rule of the law and accountability very explicitly. Five precepts or ten commandments or similar norms in other religions are the documented fundamental rules of  law. It is something we ‘know’ and ‘chant’ daily but often not practiced, probably because accountability by going to hell or heaven or reborn in a bad form/Karma is far away! Although in most religions it is not documented people including ‘respected’ professionals and politicians’ resort to other practices to take revenge/ accountability with immediate effects. It will range from manthara, gurukam (types of exorcisms), සීනිගම දේවාල, පොල් ගහන හා මිරිස් අඔරන (smashing coconuts or grinding chilli to curse people). However, fortunately this sort of accountability processes hardly works? You may pray to god or curse for accountability in this life as Karma as accountability. Confessions in church is a form of a ‘defensive and limited’ transparency by which individual men and women confess sins committed and have them absolved by God through the administration of a Priest. Whether it justifies accountability or not requires discussion like accountability in Karma.

Here are some paradoxes: although not justifiable! 

* How can the father who is a known ‘disciplinarian’ make a child accountable for stealing from his wallet, when he steals millions from the people in terms of corruption? 

* How can a mother discipline her teenager for having a boyfriend, while she is promiscuous? 

It’s important to set norms by example. The breakdown in a family unit, i.e. a ‘dysfunctional family’ is essentially due an unaccountable apex Δ i.e. the parents. It is Essential that the Apex Δ (Parents) ensures the trickle-down effects of Transparency, Rule of the Law, and Accountability to reach Grassroots i.e. the Children.

At a higher level, one needs to consider the workplace, Institution or the school to function on the same principles. Here, we replace parents with the board of directors, Administrators replace other adult caretakers in a family, while children are replaced by grassroot level workers. Monitoring would be through Attendance registers, Fingerprints, CCTV, Ledgers/Log books, Audits: Int/External. Performance Appraisals etc. Accountability would be through Reports, Profits/Losses, Complaints Monitoring each other etc. The Accountability process would be: Termination/Resignation, Bonuses, Promotion/ demotions etc. Similar paradoxes to a family, can an officer prevent a clerk from coming late, when his attendance is erratic? Can a Director Punish an Officer for a False Claim, when, he is involved in Financial Fraud such as UNDIEL/Money laundering or has made the clerk to cook the books to avoid Taxes? Here again, a flawed institution is essentially due an unaccountable apex and it is vital that the apex i.e. the management ensures accountability at all levels.

The stake holders of Good Governance have cross cutting ramifications from Family units and society at the base, Government administration including hospitals and schools, Private sector in the middle and at the top of the pyramid the legislature. Examples of cross cutting involvements are: when there is child abuse at the grass roots, the police should take action through monitoring mechanisms or complaints with involvement of the judiciary. The legislature has no role other than making laws. Monitoring mechanisms on the road such as speed cameras would detect traffic offences and the police would fine/charge offenders. Unfortunately, there is room for corruption because the detection and the fining are by the same persons i.e. police. There should be a system to outsource detection/monitoring, and then document it with evidence and fining is by a remote system such as credit card/ e’ payment, or a third person to eliminate corruption. The powerful too will not be able to escape. Accountability on the road would also help to find revenue for the government without double/triple taxation of law abiding citizens. In Australia a few years ago the annual income from Road fines was 1.1 billion Au$! (128 billion Rupees)

The Legislature has to play a two-dimensional role which is critical; on one hand they should determine policy of Governance, ensure its implementation and on the other they have to follow rules of governance themselves as role models. The problem in developing countries is: who will monitor and make the top accountable? Since Appointments and promotions of the Police and Judiciary is in the hands of the legislature, the process of accountability will happen every 5 years at only the elections, which again depends on the distorted mindset of the people who again will vote on the mutated version of the election slogan and ‘populist’ ways of canvassing. The purpose of an independent Police and Judiciary is to ensure accountability at the top. The legislature should have no influence on appointments and promotions. Independence of the police, judiciary and administrative service was gradually dismantled during the 1972 and 78 constitutional amendments with 2/3 majority parliaments. Even without realising it, over time: through manipulating power, one would gradually cross the boundaries of transparency and impunity. It is most appropriate to quote the following: “Most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and soldiers but by elected governments themselves”. (How Democracies Die’ Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt). “bodies and the courts, is the prerequisite (lynchpin) of strong and functioning democracies” (Populism, corruption and accountability Ammar Ali Qureshi APRIL 12 2018 Daily Times Pakistan)

The absence of accountability at the top, whether it be Road Rules, bond Scams or disappearances such as in North Korea or elsewhere; if one or a few are involved it becomes a ‘dictatorship’. If most of the top are involved, I call it a ‘collective’ dictatorship. Therefore, executive presidency even in so called democratic countries like the USA has little accountability and it may effectively become a dictatorship, as illustrated by the decisions made during the Covid 19 pandemic. When everyone else other than the top is accountable, the lower ranks may be made accountable sometimes outside the legal norms for unfounded offences, which I call “unaccountable accountability” of a dictatorship.

The solution to the problem lies in the hands of the leadership if they want to make a real change, forgetting elections slogans they came into power. It would be an uphill task, but doable starting in childhood aiming at behavioural change in the population. The leadership should be aided by ‘sane’ clergy, bringing mindfulness in the curriculum irrespective of religions and use of free media time to promote real governance not a slogan! Japan is a country that has good governance through mindfulness and discipline. This aspect is another dialogue itself!

*Vidyajothi, Harendra de Silva -Emeritus Professor of Paediatrics.

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Latest comments

  • 5

    Prof, you said it all. If you take accountability, monitoring, or Transparency, there is none in Lankan governance. If at all if person questions any of the above then the law will be used to shut them up. The rule of Law is present only as in impunity (right now we have a illegal curfew, pardoning of a murderer using privileges , Bandula calling for people to bring their black money to invest and trying to force a SHAM called elections at what cost ???). Though many, may deny we are a dysfunctional state with no signs of recovery. Eventually Corona will be manageable and there may be a vaccine to prevent further epidemics, but there is no such easy answers to our “HUMAN VIRUSES”. Other countries may not be perfect but at least they are trying to maintain sanity by having oversight bodies to have such things in place (accountability, monitoring and transparency). In Lanka what ever oversight body has been dismantled and politicians are vying for “one man rule.*

  • 1

    Prof. Harendra Silva: Why “Good Governance”( and so with all other “Slogans” you dealt with) have become “Dirty Words” would have best been explained had you started this essay with the subject mentioned in the conclusion – “Good Governance Through Mindfulness and Discipline”. I realize, it is difficult for you to avoid naming the persons mainly responsible for the failures of those “Good Governance” principles. You say: “This aspect is another dialogue for another day”. I await that dialogue.

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