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SHANTAL MUNRO-KNIGHT: Engage the public first


SHANTAL MUNRO-KNIGHT: Engage the public first

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THERE APPEARS TO BE no learning curve on the part of Government regarding how they should engage the populace on key policy decisions. It seems that there is a preference for the constant upheaval and disarray which is caused by a lack of information and consultation. This approach also suggests that we would rather solve confusion than prevent it. 

The current situation which surrounds the tipping fee for private haulers and, although on a smaller scale, the disquiet by vendors over the recent no-parking signs in front of their stalls are symptomatic of a system which is bullish and indifferent in its approach to public engagement. This is not to say that the people behind the decisions are ill intended or that the rationale might not be sound but “cheese on bread”, why is it so difficult to consult and explain decisions to people who would be affected by their implementation?

My gosh, would it have been that hard for someone to go down to the vendors’ stalls and have a meeting with the vendors about the enforcement of the no-parking rules and allow them some time to raise questions and concerns?

Why did it take the haulers threatening action and creating commotion for them to get a “town hall meeting” and a response from the Minister of Finance? More importantly, there is something particularly insulting when the public and interested parties are made out to seem unreasonable in their reaction in the face of what is suggested as a perfectly good explanation. This is not the point.

Indeed, I am taking the discussion beyond the actual issue of the fee or the parking spots – as I said these are symptomatic. I am actually addressing the process of decision-making in this country and more fundamentally issues of how we practise democracy.

At the heart of the discussion is not the rationale underpinning decisions – it is process. We seem to keep getting it backwards. We impose decisions and then explain. This gives the impression that the overriding modus operandi of governance is one in which we have special wise men on high dispensing wisdom and taking action on behalf of an ill-informed and ignorant populace. It highlights the weakness of this so-called representative democracy and the limited nature of how the concept of the “social contract” is viewed and interpreted.

The issue with this approach to governance is that there are some assumptions in the process which are often not interrogated. It is assumed that the “wise men”, whether they exists in government, the hierarchy of the public service or within some other privileged influential group, have all or most of the necessary wisdom to make the correct decisions on the general public’s behalf.

The problem with this assumption is that it treats wisdom as finite and, more importantly, if we take this view to its logical conclusion, it further assumes that the rest of us all are either completely ignorant or mostly ignorant. We the public are therefore treated as either sheep to be herded or three-year-olds who need to listen and not be heard.

We often forget two other sides to the equation, the first being accountability, which means that decisions should be open to scrutiny and debate and secondly, transparency in the decision-making process.

Some, I am sure, will argue that this is all academic and philosophical mumbo jumbo because there are people who need to be in charge and people who need to follow. I would argue that basic human nature suggests that people instinctively need to understand change; they need to feel listened to and be heard. Just reflect on what happens in our homes. Half of the arguments are not about what is right or wrong but whether people feel someone is listening to them. So why do we continually assume that not engaging the public is a viable approach for a right-thinking and mature population?

Shantal Munro-Knight is a development specialist and executive coordinator at the Caribbean Policy Development Centre. Email [email protected]