Effective involvement of people in the process of policy and legislative development is in the interest of both the government and the people
Taye Negussie (Phd)
It is not uncommon to hear people, here in Ethiopia, appreciating how fabulous a given government policy or legislation was, only if, had it been turned into concrete actions. The track record reveals that numerous policies, legislative acts and directives and even some international agreements or protocols being simply shelved and literally unknown to the larger public, or lukewarmly accepted and during implementation twisted to quite different directions.
Sometimes the problem of execution goes to the extent of facing difficulties in enforcing such low level administrative directives such as government-sanctioned transport fare.
Many believe the source of the problem is a pure failure by the government to enlist the voices of the people in the process of initiating and planning various policies and legislative acts.
In contrast, the government’s repeated reaction to this accusation is an outright denial. The government insists it does make people ‘participate’, and claims what is lacking is the implementation capacity of law enforcement agencies.
But truth be told, what the government often considers ‘participation’ is in reality the intense information disseminating activities preaching the significance and indispensability of already enacted policies and legislative acts. Needless to say, the action of informing one’s declared action is quite far from being a participatory action in the true sense of participation. At best, it may amount to a mere act of persuasion, brainwashing or post-action rationalization.
Barriers of participation
What precludes governments from effecting genuine participation of people when and where it is needed? The problem begins with the shortfall of understanding concerning the gains that add up from involving people for common cause. Coupled with this is the lack of basic skills required to undertake a participatory activity.
One stumbling block is the ascendancy of ‘Technocracy’ as the sole dominant world view or framework of knowledge. ‘Technocracy’ basically presupposes the supremacy of technical and specialized knowledge over any other form of knowledge yielding to the arrogant tradition of “experts know it all “and subsequently the contempt for any other form of knowledge and wisdom, which I call the ‘Tragedy of Science’.
Nonetheless, as Donella Meadows rightly put it, “Great truths can only be gained by synthesizing the small truths possessed by each of us”.
External pressure or influences of donors and other outsiders may also force poor country governments to bypass the lengthy, but otherwise vital component of listening to people’s voices. Evidently, almost all donor-funded projects, programs or activities primarily place premium on the needs and interest of donors. As a result, the real and felt needs of the people on the ground are sidelined.
At times, presumably concern for efficiency – much less material, financial and other costs – and the fear-factor that a premature revelation of prospective policies and laws would provoke dissent and dissonance conspire against people’s participation. However, seen from the long-term vantage point both are essential costs and sacrifices worth paying.
Since recently instances of copy-paste policies and legislations from unrelated foreign sources are abound, which would further make the issue of people’s participation out of question. However, laws and policies work effectively only when they are drawn from and made operate in the right context.
Rationale of participation
After all, why people’s voices have to be enlisted in the policy and legislative development process? What is the rationale behind the need for people’s participation?
Understandably, there are quite varied pragmatic psychological, political, social and economic reasons. First and foremost, any policy or legislative action earns currency and legitimacy only when it is acknowledged, recognized and accepted by the people concerned. Lacking this popularity and legitimacy, people may feel reluctant to collaborate or in worst case stand on the way of its implementation.
On the other hand, when people are consulted at the right time, i.e. from the outset, they are most likely to develop the sense of belongingness, and concern for the issue at hand. A feeling of belongingness, in turn, boosts people’s sense of confidence and control over their life situation, ultimately enhancing their sprit of empowerment.
Ideas and wisdom which originate from grass root sources can also prevent or lessen the faults of the otherwise remotely designed technocratic policies or legislations. This ultimately enhances the effectiveness of policies and legislations whereby not only people collaborate but also do their utmost for their full execution.
Needless to say consultation with people at the very outset of an initiative produces consensus about goals and means, and more clarity about roles and authority. Consensus and clarity often reduce conflict and delays, resulting in smoother implementation and lower overall costs.
Furthermore, a genuine and effective involvement of people in the process of policy and legislative development can promote justice, equity, solidarity and fraternity. By promoting transparency and accountability and the subsequent good governance, it also prevents the unethical and evil acts of malfeasance, corruption and discrimination.
The issue of peoples’ prior involvement in the policy and legislative issuance process is not a trivial act done to please or displease others. It is a crucial step which determines the legitimate, democratic, equitable and just nature of government policies and legislations, and subsequently the overall quality of governance. It is a daunting task which demands certain positive mind-set and capabilities, most notably compassion, commitment, critical knowledge and the art and skill of listening to people, which could steadily be acquired if the will to do it exists in the first place.