Adlai Stevenson once said that “public confidence in the integrity of the government is indispensable to faith in democracy; and when we lose faith in the system, we have lost faith in everything we fight and spend for”.
Public integrity is one of the salient features of a democratic system of governance, where every action of the government functionaries should be analysed, scrutinised, commented upon, held accountable, or exposed. This could be done only if the action has been done in a transparent manner. Therefore every action has to be transparent in order to analyse whether the action is right or wrong.
Government secrecy is a major impediment to public integrity. Freedom of Information Acts (FOIA) have been enacted in a number of countries worldwide, allowing members of the general public to obtain documents which have not been released to public on various pretexts. In the US, FOIA have certain exemptions such as national security reasons or intelligence sources and information.
Many journalists have been driven to hell owing to their daring attempts at exposing the misdeeds of individuals or policies of governments. This simply proves the important role the media could play in a functioning democracy.
An attempt to bring FOIA legislation has been curtailed by the Government. The passage of FOIA would have augmented the Government’s battered credibility in the eyes of international community. There is still scope for its utility and resurrection.
Public integrity is a necessarily corollary in public life and whoever works for the Government or is engaged in public affairs must respect the need for transparency in their actions and deeds. Democracy allows the majority voice to be heard and this then forms the public opinion.
In politics, honesty and credentials of the person are very important and the person must be above board if his utterances are to be believed and carry any weight. There are many public functionaries who have had a number of criminal and dubious records against them but none have been proven guilty, either because they were able to manipulate the criminal justice system, they have been found innocent due to the lack of evidence, threats given to witnesses, permanently diluting evidence against them, or silencing the witnesses forever.
Free media is therefore an irritant to public functionaries who have corrupt motives and they resort to various methods of bringing hatred and contempt on public watchdogs – the free media.
Governments of the day would then let loose lapdogs in order to overwhelm the watchdogs. This is not only prevalent in Sri Lanka but in other countries as well. The citizens ‘right to know’ has thus been purged by extra judicial activities, mass propaganda and hysteria, and through fear psychosis.
Philosophy of action in public affairs
In public affairs, complex issues are discussed and it would be difficult for unsuspecting citizens to understand the real issues involved unless one is educated in public policy issues or one is a direct beneficiary or a victim of a certain policy.
How could one know if an action taken by an authority is appropriate? A certain action of a public functionary could be for a corrupt motive. Since public affairs are so complex, one could interpret the action as being most appropriate. Yet another school of thought could interpret the action as being ‘politically expedient’ or ‘unwarranted’. Political advocacy also plays some role in swaying public opinion and this could be achieved by detail discussion and wider participation in debates. How could a citizen come to the conclusion that an action of an authority or a public functionary had been done in the interests of public?
Let’s take for an example that if you want to throw a ball, it involves an action, a goal, and a bodily movement directed by your mind. When you catch the flu, it is not considered an action because it is something which happens accidentally and you could play no part in avoiding that. But if you knew that someone had been suffering from a contagious disease, you could have avoided him.
Utilitarianism is a theory advanced by Jeremy Bentham and his student John Stuart Mill and, under utilitarianism, a proper course of action has been described as being one that promotes greatest happiness for the greatest number.
Bentham also said in his book ‘Theory of Legislation’ that “public good ought to be the object of the legislator; general utility to be the foundation of his reasoning. To know the true good of the community is what constitutes the science of legislation; the art consists in finding the means to realise that good.”
For example, if you were to build a house, what would be your main criterion? A house is for the protection from the wind and cold of winter, the heat and rain of summer and to keep out robbers and thieves and to protect privacy. Once you have secured these ends, your purpose of building the house has been completed. Whatever does not contribute to these ends should therefore be considered extravagant expenses which would affect your purse.
This is so in public life and a citizen should be able to understand the rationale of an action or a policy of the Government. There is a Cabinet of Ministers to advice the Government on best course of action on any issues.
There is a pertinent question: What is the percentage of Ministers in relation to the population and GDP? Why does Sri Lanka have such a disproportionate number of Ministers who have been offered State privileges, whereas in India there is a lesser number of Ministers vis-à-vis a population which stands at one billion?
Government secrecy and role of watchdogs
Government secrecy has been a major stumbling block in accessing the reasons that lead to a certain decision. In some cases, events which should have come in for public discussion have been swept under the carpet.
In 1997 a US Joint Congressional Commission came up with a report and identified that secrecy is a form of government regulation, that excessive secrecy has significant consequences for national interests when policy makers are not fully informed, the government is not held accountable for its action, and the public cannot engage fully in informed debates.
In the US, a research centre has been in existence since 1989 under the title Centre for Public Integrity and its sole purpose is to ‘reveal abuses of power, corruption and dereliction of duty by powerful public and private institutions in order to cause them to operate with honesty, integrity, accountability and to put the public interests first’. There are host of other such ‘thinks tanks’ who keep an ear to the ground on Government action.
In Sri Lanka, the primary watchdog on public integrity is the Auditor General, who carries out a seminal duty of checking if the accounting process is in line with the law and must report to the Parliament of Sri Lanka periodically. One senior official came under an acid attack over an accounting glitch he discovered during his audit process.
However the Auditor General does not have a mandate to frustrate any payments being made prior to the transaction and his role comes ‘ex post facto’. The media could therefore play a much bigger role than the Auditor General through investigative journalism and prevent such dubious transactions from taking place.
The Parliamentary committee COPE seems to be doing a national duty by summoning public functionaries, to seek explanations. The individuals who championed the cause of public integrity were Wijedasa Rajapakse, PC, and Ravi Karunanayake, MP, who had the guts to issue damning reports on the mismanagement of public enterprises. Sri Lanka needs at least a dozen such people to take the country out of this ever-increasing cancer of corruption and abuse of power.
The Commissioner of Elections is also charged with a duty to conduct elections impartially and this Department has been under focus for decades because the public believes that none of the elections held in the past come under the proper test of ‘fairness’ or were held on ‘a level playing field’. This criteria has been absent in our elections for decades. All successive governments must be held accountable for that.
Excessive powers accorded under the provisions of the Constitution make the Executive prone to such abuses of power. This will come to an end only when the 1978 Constitution is pruned to a manageable level, perhaps by resurrecting the 17th Amendment to the Constitution.
Changing or amending the Constitution per se would not solve all the ills of the country. It requires political will; perhaps in Nietzschean language, the “will to power”.
(This writer is a freelance journalist and a political lobbying and government affairs consultant.)