By W.A Wijewardena –
Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka?
The official name of the country called Sri Lanka is the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. One may wonder what this means because many other countries have chosen to call themselves just Republics. The list is extensive but some notable examples from this region are Republic of Korea, Republic of India, Republic of Singapore, Republic of Indonesia, Republic of Maldives and Republic of the Philippines and so on. The full list of the official names of the countries in the world has been documented by Wikipedia (available here).
When many countries have chosen to keep their official names as brief as possible, why has Sri Lanka added two qualifying adjectives to its name? Is it because Sri Lankans are famous for having many first names to their last names? No, it is a reminder to public policy makers when they strategise public policy as to what they should follow.
Democratic means continuous public consultation
The adjective ‘Democratic’ has several meanings which are all connected to each other. It means that the rulers of the country are the people, they elect their representatives to rule them at free elections; once elected to power, rulers should consult the people in every major decision, and to facilitate consultation, several freedoms relating to people should be guaranteed. These freedoms cover freedom of thought, expression and assembly.
To ensure these freedoms, the elected rulers have been bound by their constitutions to uphold them. But to maintain a proper check on rulers, democratic societies should build and ensure the free existence of civic institutions like media, political parties, trade and professional unions and informal people’s forums.
Inclusiveness embodied in the adjective ‘socialist’
‘Socialist’ does not mean the old sense of socialism in which all properties, including human skills and wisdom were to be held by community and not by individuals. Today it means inclusiveness. All people, irrespective of man-made ethnic, racial, religious, regional and caste differences, should be included in the democratic decision making process and enjoy the fruits which such decisions have created. It then follows that this ‘socialist’ is not completed unless ‘democratic’ is ensured.
In a republic, no king to inherit power to a son or a kin
‘Republic’ means that it is not ruled by a monarch who will inherit the country to his offspring or a close family member. The ruler is elected by the people and fired by the people. This was obvious when the king was overthrown in Nepal a few years back. ‘The Kingdom of Nepal’ was renamed ‘Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal’ which in fact emphasised the fact that there was no more a king as the head of the state of that country.
The division of duty and responsibility of making public policy
In public policy, there is a clear demarcation of duties and responsibilities between the elected politicians and bureaucrats who run the administration on their behalf. True to the meaning of ‘democratic’, public policies should be designed by politicians on behalf of the people who have elected them to do so with the proviso that they should consult people in every move they make.
The bureaucrats are simply the facilitating agents of the people and their duty and responsibility are limited to providing technical assistance in designing policy and implementing them once they have been approved. If they take over the duty of making public policy, then, it is not only an aberration of the true meaning of ‘democratic’ enshrined in the Constitution but also a distorted accountability fixing since it is the elected rulers who become responsible for what the bureaucrats have designed as public policy.
Not to have mere supply-driven policies
In either case, if public policies are made without consulting the people, then such policies become mere ‘supply-driven policies’ in which demanders are excluded in the decision-making process. Hence, consultation is a must.
Institutionalising public consultations
The Canadian Policy Research Networks which is not operation now came up with a special report in 2006 titled “Fostering Canadians’ Role in Public Policy: A Strategy for Institutionalising Public Involvement in Policy” explaining in detail the role of consultation in public policy making (available here). The report had been authored by Lori Turnbull and Peter Aucoin of Dalhousie University in Canada. The rest of this article is based on this report with comparison to present public policy making methods in Sri Lanka wherever it is relevant.
Public consultation should be a passion and not a fashion
Turnbull and Aucoin say that people should be the main actors in policy making processes and their ideas should have been reckoned appropriately in deciding the policy outcomes. This is called the ‘citizen engagement’ or consulting people in democratic societies. But what often happens is a convening of a meeting of selected people at the final stage of making public policy. Whatever the contributions they make at that stage would end as worthless exercises done by them. At that point, the main objectives, processes and involvements of public policy have already been decided leaving no room for alternative suggestions.
Hence, it will be too late to take their views into account when finalising the public policy in question. This was apparent in the recent private sector leaders’ view-seeking exercise done with respect to the Budget of 2015 just 10 days before the presentation of the Budget in Parliament.
Though the Treasury Secretary had promised to give due regard to the suggestions made by the private sector business leaders, an examination of the Budget proposals reveals that it had been a vague promise. Instead of heeding the suggestions of private business leaders who demanded protection, mandatory long-term loans and level playing fields with foreign owned hoteliers, some un-demanded proposals have been made in Budget 2015.
Two such proposals are the increase in the employer contribution to the Employees Provident Fund by 2% and proposal to distribute an unearned capital appreciation of investments in EPF by way of paying dividends among members who have maintained accounts for a minimum period of 10 years. Hence, the exercise made before the Budget has ended as just a ‘consultation show’.
The need for consulting the public throughout the process
Hence, Turnbull and Aucoin suggest that “to be meaningful, public involvement must: occur throughout the policy process, before major decisions are taken; reflect the diversity of the population; provide participants with credible, balanced information about the issues in question; use a fair process; and communicate the results to the public at large”. These are important suggestions since they help governments to convert the otherwise apathetic public into vibrant participants in the democratic processes in which they should compulsorily get engaged.
Today, in Sri Lanka, this process is not taking place. The public has simply let the bureaucrats and technocrats make public policy on their behalf. As a result, major public policies involving town development, health, education, infrastructure etc are taken without consulting the people. Eventually, when the policies are implemented, they run into so many practically problems and are abandoned midstream, wasting the resources utilised for making such non-workable public policies.
Have good institutions to make consultations effective
Accordingly, Turnbull and Aucoin have emphasised on the need for institutionalising the public consultation and engagement process in public policy making. That means that people’s forums have to be recognised as an essential part of the democratic representation in the democratic world today. In Sri Lanka, this has been explicitly incorporated into the country’s official name by calling it a democratic socialist republic. However, public views are being frowned upon by both the rulers and bureaucrats in the belief that such free expression of views is a threat to their existence.
But Turnbull and Aucoin say that it need not be the case. They have argued that “Public involvement in policy strengthens rather than threatens representative democracy. Public involvement enables, even requires, that citizens become informed, formulate considered opinions, and discuss them with others, especially with those whom they would not otherwise interact. In the process, social capital, social trust and civic knowledge are strengthened. It helps political leaders to gain better insight into the public’s opinions, values, and priorities which supports them in their roles as the people’s representatives. It can make for better public policy, as citizen feedback on the successes and failures of previous policies can better inform policy decisions. And, the inclusiveness of the process better legitimises the policy outcome, as groups with diverse opinions have been given a fair chance to engage.”
Right to information a must
This has clearly underscored the need for having a right of the people to information in a country. In Sri Lanka, this has been a persistent demand made by some opposition political parties for many years. Some of them had even gone to the extent of placing it as a private member’s bill in Parliament to be ignored by the ruling party which feels, contrary to the observation of Turnbull and Aucoin above, that it is a threat to their existence. It has been possible for the ruling party to ignore this demand due to the widespread apathy of the people about one of their important rights. The demand has been further weakened by the lacklustre approach of the media, which obviously stand to gain if such a system is put in place.
Core elements of public consultation
There are four important core elements in a democratic public engagement process in a country as identified by Turnbull and Aucoin. They are:
- Public involvement should be recognised as a core element in the policy processes of countries;
- Public inputs should be given substantial weights in policy making and they should not be treated as mere ‘token efforts’ both in perception and in reality;
- The commitment to institutionalised public engagement should apply to the whole government and not to just selected areas; and
- The efforts to institutionalise public involvement should apply to both the public service and parliaments.
However, the experience in many countries is that the policy making ‘elites’ have been reluctant to listen to the public. There could be many reasons for such resistance. One is the fear that they lose control or power if they allow public to speak up. Another is the fear that it would be capitalised by the opposing political parties to attack those in power driven not by country interests but by personal interests.
A third reason is the belief that the public does not have sufficient technical knowledge or ability to make worthwhile suggestions. This last one has a valid foundation as presented by Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon in his theory of bounded rationality presented in 1957. According to Simon, people do not behave rationally because they do not have information, time or brain power to make informed decisions. Hence, their rational behaviour is bounded by these three limitations.
Synergy in group consultations
Though it is true that individuals as single entities do not have time or information or brain power to analyse a given policy, it is not the case with groups which have been institutionalised. Groups can overcome these defects by bringing a ‘synergic effect’ – the additional power they gain by being together – to their work. That is the importance of allowing civic institutions to foster rather than to suppress in democratic societies.
In many countries, trade unions have hired economists and other technical experts to analyse important public policies for them. Such self-empowerment processes have made it possible for them to make informed choices and overcome the deficiencies which Herbert Simon had incorporated into his bounded rationality theory.
According to Turnbull and Aucoin, there are three barriers which a country should overcome in its initiative to institutionalise public engagement processes. One is structural, another is cultural and a third is practical.
Consultations should start from Parliaments and spread to other areas
In the structural field, it is necessary to revamp the whole policy making processes of the government, permitting the people to participate in all stages of policy making. This should be started with Parliament itself, especially through greater use of parliamentary committees to engage the public.
In Sri Lanka, this is not the case and the public are barred from the proceedings of parliamentary committees. These committees have their businesses in camera prohibiting even the media to have access to their hearings. However, quite contrary to the expectations of the committees to keep the transactions that have transpired with strict confidence, the media have been reporting what actually happened in them practically word by word. This has to be changed and this structural issue has to be addressed.
Break the culture of fear and apathy
In the cultural arena, there should be an attitudinal change in both the public and policy elites. When the policy elites feel that the public are a threat, they take all measures possible to close the doors for the public to raise their voice.
When the public realises that they are barred from policy making processes, they develop a whole apathy toward the entire gamut of political processes. This is especially evident in the low turnout at elections in the developed world. Hence, it is necessary to break the barriers and make both parties appreciate the benefits which each one gets by active participation in public policy making processes.
Public consultation is a worthwhile cost
The practical issues involve cost, time and resources. They also represent the cost of maintaining democracy in a country. However, if democracy is to prevail, society should be prepared to undertake these costs which are incurred in order to strengthen the democratic processes.
One realisation to be made is that in countries where the public do not participate in policy making processes because they are not consulted, the public anger is exploded in a bloody violent way which is more costly than incurring the costs of engaging the public. There have been many instances in Sri Lanka which have proved this point. It is being proven in Hong Kong right now where the people demand that decisions affecting their life should be made after due consultation.
*W.A. Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at email@example.com