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Editor’s Memo

Open govt is the answer!

By Vincent Kahiya

OUR government never ceases to amaze especially when it comes to penning legislation. The current desperate situation is — from the government’s

perspective — one which can be put right by legislation and more legislation.

That is why government feels it can legislate against poverty by coming up with the Price Stabilisation Bill. It wants to come up with legislation to ensure that figures from the Central Statistical Office are “more realistic”!

Then this week Finance minister Herbert Murerwa told a Public Accounts Committee that government was introducing new Bills to punish line ministries that failed to produce accounts of funds from the fiscus.

“These Bills would be a milestone aimed at creating efficiency and value for money,” Murerwa reportedly said.

That is to say that the minister believes that efficiency in accounting for government funds, curbing over-expenditure and all other forms of fiscal prudence can be achieved through legislation.

With all due respect to the minister, I think he is missing the point here because governments which have efficient systems of public administration have not achieved this through volumes of legislation to punish those who overstep set boundaries. Efficiency, accountability and integrity are cultural norms developed by popular consent. This is easily achieved if national leaders demonstrate a willingness to walk the talk.

Our civil servants have been told that they have to toe the Zanu PF line. They have to work within the set parameters of party policy and systems. Resultantly, this politicisation resonates in the public service where inefficiency has become a virtue. The chaos at the Passport Office, the absenteeism of teachers and shameless corruption at the border posts are all part and parcel of Zanu PF’s system of patronage.

I recall in the late 1990s when Registrar-General Tobaiwa Mudede took us on a tour of the Births and Deaths Registry at KGVI. We were shown the latest computer bank staffed by dozens of “highly-trained” professionals. We were told queues would soon be a “thing of the past” and that the waiting period for identity documents would be cut down to a week.

The computer equipment was no substitute for a culture of efficiency as queues today are longer than they were five years ago despite a reduced population.

The same is true of the envisaged legislation to force civil servants to produce accounts on time and to account for every dollar spent.

This is a useless law, especially when Murerwa’s ministry continues to have an appetite to borrow for recurrent expenditure. It is also futile because the central bank has a deliberate policy to crowd out the private sector by borrowing for our wasteful rulers. RBZ governor Gideon Gono has also told us that he will print more money to preserve national security and avoid embarrassment. Will the law weaken Gono’s vocation to keep the presses running?

What the country requires are systems that promote openness and these can be achieved by arming voters with accurate information. A government can only enhance its efficiency and accountability if voters are armed with the information they need to make certain that ours remains a government whose legitimacy is derived from the consent of the governed.

Open government, of course, is one of the most basic requirements of a healthy democracy. It allows taxpayers to see where their money is going. It permits the honest exchange of information that ensures government accountability, and it upholds the ideal that government never rules without the consent of the governed.

Zimbabwe should move towards open government instead of adopting punitive systems. Major obstacles to achieving open government include the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the Official Secrets Act and the Public Order and Security Act which have been used to deliberately bully the public from scrutinising government.

Murerwa’s resolve to achieve accountability will fail as long as he does not have the public behind him. It is the public who demand accountability and not just himself and colleagues in cabinet.

The public can only make such a contribution if there is governance by consent. True consent of the governed requires something more than just holding elections every four years. What we need is informed consent. By reforming our information policies in order to guarantee true access by all citizens to government records, we will revitalise the informed consent that keeps our people free. Informed consent is impossible without open and accessible government.

But sometimes human nature dictates otherwise. Elected officials and government leaders want recognition for their successes but not their failures. But in a healthy democracy we need to know the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Abraham Lincoln put it best: “No man is good enough to govern another without that person’s consent.”

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