• Thursday, July 25, 2024
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To whom much is given: Accountability in public life – the public service

Accountability

The public service has dual accountability responsibilities. It is accountable to the politician in that it translates the policies and priorities developed by the politician into tangible public goods and services. The public servant is also accountable to the public in that it is responsible for ensuring that services are delivered impartially to all citizens.

However, according to John Baptiste Moliere, “It is not only what we do, but also what we do not do for which we are accountable.” One thing that the public service does not do well enough, and in some cases, does not do at all, is to explain to the Public what it is doing and why it is doing it.

Reformers are often too busy doing the reforms that they do not spare the time to explain to the public on whose behalf they are doing the reforms what they are doing and how the reforms will benefit them. In my three decades of doing public service reforms, this is a trait that I have seen time and again. Indeed, those that take the trouble to inform the public are seen as attention-seeking show-offs who try to claim that they are better than everybody else. Some public servants are even so scared that the reforms that they are engaging in may unravel, leading to embarrassment and shame for the reformer. In my experience, there is absolutely no need for this. The reformer has a duty to inform the public of the efforts that they are making. When things go wrong, as they inevitably do, the astute reformer will admit that something has gone wrong, take responsibility for it, apologise, and set out the steps that they will take to put things right and ensure that failures do not recur. In my experience, Nigerians actually appreciate this sense of honesty and accountability.

In my interaction with many Nigerians, I have been surprised at how little the general public knows about the workings of government. The things that public servants know intuitively as a matter of course are complete mysteries even to highly educated and informed civil society groups and members of the public. Many do not understand the difference between Capital and Recurrent expenditure. In the quest for more and more capital expenditure, many do not understand that every item of Capital expenditure has recurrent implications. Every new school you build needs new teachers. Every new hospital you build needs doctors and nurses. Their salaries come out of Recurrent expenditure, which is often demonised by civil society, the media and members of the public. This has meant that many public service organisations simply do not have the minimum resources to run a functional government system with the attendant checks and balances.

Many commentators on the subject do not understand that, with a mono-product economy and the attendant fluctuations in things like the price of oil, it is not everything that is budgeted that is released and it is not everything that is released that is spent. Once people see an item in the budget, they assume that the money has already been spent (or rather, stolen) by the public servant. The public does not understand the nuances. The public servant does not make enough effort to explain.

Because the resources of the people and their taxes pay the salaries of the public servant, the public servant has a duty to respond to requests for information about their actions. The public has a right to ask questions. When government claims that monies have been recovered or ghost workers discovered, the public has a right to demand to know where the money is and what it has been applied to. I have seen many instances where government appears to claim that certain sums have been spent on Capital project, when it actually meant to say that those sums have been released. Therefore, when citizens ask “Where are the projects?”, there is deafening silence. Sometimes, assets that are claimed to have been recovered are still subject to court proceedings and cannot really be treated as income until the final determination of the case. Oftentimes, the public servant does not bother to explain this to the public.

The public service has a duty to inform the media in order for them to inform the public, and also to inform civil society and the general public directly through reports, publications, dialogues and announcements. It should always seek to perform this duty proactively, without waiting for the public to ask for the information. The items of proactive disclosure required of the public service are clearly set out in the FOI Act and the various guidance documents produced to operationalise the Act. They include procurement information, such as requests for expressions of interest, organisations to whom Requests for Proposals have been issued, details of contract awards and details of payments to contractors. They also include organisational structures, responsibilities of key officers, remuneration of staff (which public institutions can show by simply supplying relevant circulars from the Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Allocation Commission and the National Salaries, Incomes and Wages Commission), and the publications and reports of the organisation.

In my interaction with many Nigerians, I have been surprised at how little the general public knows about the workings of government

In my experience, proactive disclosure lessens the burden of responding to FOI requests. The more information you proactively disclose, the less FOI requests you will receive and the less time you will spend responding to them. It is not advisable for the public service Chief Executive to delegate the responsibilities for disclosure of information to a junior officer. The Chief Executive of the public organisation, as the Accounting Officer entrusted with the responsibility of expending public funds, must be the chief FOI officer of the organisation they lead.

The concept of Annual Reports, a perfectly normal practice in the private sector is sorely lacking in the public sector. Government should make it compulsory for all government entities to produce Annual Reports that should be easily accessible to civil society, the media and members of the public. This will provide the basic information with which the organisation can be held to account.

In conclusion, the privilege of exercising state power is one that majority of Nigerians will never experience in their lifetimes. Those that are fortunate enough to enjoy that privilege must be aware that privilege breeds accountability and accountability breeds responsibility. Transparency is the first step towards accountability. Without transparency in policies, actions and expenditure, it is difficult to pursue accountability. As Ralph Nader said, “Secrecy destroys accountability” and the misconception about the application of the Official Secrets Act, 1962, needs to be clarified urgently. However, in my view, the greatest enemy of accountability is impunity, the feeling that you are doing the public a favour and do not owe them any explanations. If the politician and the public servant is to win the trust of the public, this is something that must change.  To whom much is given, much is expected. God bless Nigeria.

JOE ABAH