Fackson Banda puts forward a passionate case for more open government centred around the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act:
There can be no doubt that Zambia would have been better off had it institutionalised transparency and accountability in its government structures. In an earlier article, I focused on how British parliamentarians became implicated in an expenses scandal that has seen the resignation of the powerful House of Commons Speaker Michael Martin, along with several members of Gordon Brown’s Cabinet.All this became possible through the publication by the UK’s Daily Telegraph of damning evidence of how British parliamentarians – across the political divide – helped themselves to the public purse through outrageously corrupt expenses claims. As a result, Brown’s Labour Party has suffered a devastating loss of councils in the just-ended local election. As if this was not enough, the Labour Party has also been dealt a humiliating and painful blow in the European Parliamentary elections, losing most of their seats to the Conservatives.
Against people’s disenchantment with the Establishment politics, a disturbing phenomenon has emerged in British politics. What is described as a fascist and racist British National Party (BNP) seems close to gaining a foothold in mainstream British politics, signalling a dark chapter in that country.This is what happens when societies become so democratically bankrupt that people feel their voices are not heard. This is the tragedy of liberal democracies which elevate a more formalistic or mechanistic democracy, with little or no real civic participation. People become disillusioned and soon turn to something else – something more sinister. It is a way of striking out at the elite system of democracy. We must remember that Britain dithered about the enactment and implementation of its Freedom of Information Act of 2000. And now they are paying the price for it.What has happened at the Ministry of Health in our country, and possibly what is true of all other government ministries and departments, is bad for democratic politics. This is what happens when government operations are shrouded in secrecy, known only to a select few. It is so heart-rending to read that the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health may not have been privy to some of the financial decisions made on behalf of the ministry.This is why there is urgent need to open up the government system to greater public scrutiny. We have had enough talk about national security. In the past, I have used up enough space of my column to debunk the notion that national security is the raison d'être for keeping a closed government bureaucracy. Our politicians’ understanding of national security is narrow, circumscribed around their party-political survival. Properly understood, national security includes protecting the country against grand corruption, which can result in any number of social upheavals. We have already begun to witness such upheavals the country. It would be foolhardy not to correlate the on-going health workers’ strike to the cases of plunder of financial resources in the Ministry of Health.The workers have realised – painfully – that if people can steal as much as K27 billion from a single ministry, the government must be awash in money. If the crippling of the health system cannot be described as a threat to national security, then I don’t know what can. Many government workers are convinced that the Zambian government, if it managed its financial resources prudently, would be able to pay them a decent wage.The government could help itself with more ease than imaginable. It can help the public track its financial performance. Such opening up can play a corruption-preventive role. Indeed, workers can, for themselves, follow the trail of money and understand why their salaries are structured the way they are.The first thing, then, is to speed up the enactment of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. This is not just for media workers, incidentally. It is for any Zambia citizen who has a legitimate reason to ask for information relating to any aspect of government performance. It is easy to see how such a law will make it difficult for people to hide behind the veil of secrecy that so characterises the government structure. It would compel civil servants to discharge their services with a degree of probity. It would encourage ordinary Zambians to “own’ their government and thus become co-responsible for its operations.The second thing is for government ministries and departments to become proactively transparent in their deeds. They need not wait for, nor indeed dread, the Auditor-General’s annual reports. In the age of Internetisation, government bodies can publish online, monthly or quarterly perhaps, details of their financial incomes and expenditures for people to see. Zambia must run an open government. Here, we can perhaps learn from President Barack Obama.On his first full day in office, President Obama issued an Executive Order and several memoranda on transparency. His “open government agenda” has six key features, five of which are relevant to the Zambian situation.First, it provides easy access to public information, ensuring that “the government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.”Second, it limits the scope of claims of executive privilege, ensuring that citizens have greater access to presidential records and communications, with fewer and narrower cases of executive privilege.Third, it emphasises affirmative disclosure of information, whereby the public’s right to be informed about decisions and facts that affect it should encompass a duty on the part of the government to proactively disclose and disseminate information that is relevant to affected communities.Fourth, it emphasises public participation, guaranteeing that decisions best reflect the interest of the public and benefit from the greatest level of possible expertise. In other words, it ensures that government is participatory.Fifth, it uses new technologies innovatively to promote interactivity between public servants and the citizenry in decision-making, in the belief that such an interactive platform will enable the public to track, review and comment on decisions made by the head of the executive.Our Zambian government system demonstrates a lackadaisical approach to such noble principles of transparency and accountability. While we cannot reproduce Obama’s open government agenda in its exactness, there are some important steps that we can take, not least speeding up the enactment of Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation.We can also configure our government web sites in such a way that there is genuine interactivity. Our State House web site, for example, has been “under construction” longer than I can remember. When it is up and running, I hope that it will answer to the communicative imperatives of simplicity of navigation, interactivity, and the like. I also hope that its content will be much more than the mundane.The same lessons can be extended to all other government web sites. Many of them tend to be for show rather than serious engagement with the public. Why, for example, can’t citizens, download certain application forms from such web sites? Indeed, it is not clear whether or not they are updated. Nor is it clear that their feedback facility is fully exploited. E-Government can help build openness and restore public confidence in the government bureaucracy.Of course, I realise that the majority of Zambians have little or no access to the Internet, but we can always hope for a ‘remediation’ of such online content through other more accessible channels, such as radio, newspapers, television, and the like.The bottom-line, however, is that Zambia needs an open government to enhance its national security. In some instances, national security is not about secrecy; it is about transparency.
There's a lot I agree with in the article, especially the need for a general "opening up" of government, underpinned by clear principles on good governance. The call for greater e-government is particularly sounded. Indeed I touch on this issue in Governing in difficult times. But there's one area where Fackson's does not provide a balanced assessment : Freedom of Information. There are huge costs associated with Freedom of Information which he has overlooked e.g. resource costs (some has to handle your query), IT equipment (need I say more?) and biggest of them all the need for an Information Regulator. A whole new office dedicated to ensure your requests are being taken serious. Incidentally, as with every new legislation, where parties disagree the matter ends up in court (more cases for the Judiciary to handle on top the corruption cases). It might be that on the balance the social benefits of freedom of information outweigh the costs, but we should not overlook the costs involved as we debate these issues. A balanced assessment is needed informed by real numbers.