In spite of the fact Sri Lanka had ratified the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, had endorsed freedom of information legislation and had established different sorts of anti-corruption agencies, corruption is still perceived as one of the biggest problems that is currently being faced by the country.
Hawkers on restricted areas of public roads pay routine protection money to officers of various State entities to run their businesses. Routine approvals and permits for construction of houses by an individual citizen require an “independent licence fee” to be paid to relevant entities. Awarding contracts is influenced by hefty considerations depending on the contract-value. Welfare schemes launched by the State routinely provide additional source of income to intermediaries. As they say, there is a revenue opportunity in drought and a bigger one in floods.
These are just couple of examples of “visible “corruption. There are more and more. Some are “invisible” and might (or might not) come to light many years later. There is a popular saying among common citizens and businessmen: “In Sri Lanka, money talks and offer quicker and hazzle-free solutions.”.
These corruption practices have made the nation crippled and barren. Foreign investment has slowed down due to high risk of corruption for businesses in Sri Lanka. The most common form of corruption included facilitation payments paid to avoid bureaucratic red tape. There is also a high-level of corruption in the public procurement sector. Our main anti-corruption laws which criminalise corruption were not effective enough. The powerful political elites often went unpunished for committing corruption crimes.
On one hand, we are fortunate to have a good free electoral system. But there is an inbuilt culture that once public representatives are elected, the task of governance is to be solely their turf and civil society simply waits for government services to be filtered to their doorsteps.
On the other hand, we are not fortunate to have Abraham Lincoln’s democracy where the government is “of the people, by the people, and for the people”. Apathy has engendered complacency, inefficiency, ineffectiveness; and worse, massive corruption among the ranks of those tasked with governance.
This corruption has reached unprecedented proportions, involving billions and billions of Rupees lost from the coffers of the government which should have been spent for vital government services – especially in the light of chronic poverty. The global Corruption Perception Index which ranks countries according to the perceived level of public sector corruption has placed Sri Lanka 93rd position out of 188 countries with a poor score of 38 out of 100 for year 2019. As a nation we should hang our heads and cry – like Tom Dooley because we – the citizens- are also responsible for this disaster.
It is consoling to note that, at least now, the public has realised that something radically needs to be done to return to the status of a corruption-free clean government. The citizens also want to get directly involved to make it happen.
As someone believing on deliberative democracy and its practices, I think we should not exaggerate electoral accountability. Of course, it is better than nothing at all, however it is not an effective way of ensuring a corrupt-free government system. At the end of the day, we are talking about a power that cannot be contested for 5 years. Such power is simply not genuine. Unless the ideas and perspectives of citizens are transmitted to the political arena, we cannot talk about true democracy and the power of people.
Not that consultation and participation never happen, they do. But these efforts are too often focused on specific issues where public interest is already high, such as the environment or consumer protection. But consultation has not been effective enough throughout government as an integral part of the whole governance and law-making process. It is a tall order, but we can take a few steps at a time towards the goal.
Priority wise, the most important challenge we have to meet without any further delay is corruption. Of course, there are other important challenges like, religious fundamentalism, social exclusion, discrimination and inequality, violence and disregard of rule of law etc. These issues plague our nation and society in different ways and degrees. Yet, corruption must be tackled as number one.
What can responsible citizens do to help the country overcome corruption practices? What are the institutional mechanisms available to organise citizen action towards realising the goal? It’s time we address these two questions from the perspective of our Constitution.
I believe that citizen participation is the missing link. It is something successive governments haven’t given adequate consideration. UN Public Administration Glossary describes Citizen Participation as “the involvement of citizens in a wide range of policy-making activities, including the determination of levels of service, budget priorities, and the acceptability of physical construction projects in order to orient government programmes toward community needs, build public support, and encourage a sense of cohesiveness within neighbourhood.”
Quite a wide field, of course! Democracies need more than an occasional vote from their citizens to remain healthy. They need the steady attention, time, and commitment of large numbers of their citizens who, in turn, look to the government to protect their rights and freedom.
A few years ago, the Philippine government introduced a solution to curb corruption. In the Philippines, the Commission on Audit (COA) is the supreme powerful body that upholds the people’s primordial right to a clean government and the prudent utilisation of public resources. It was founded on the premise that public accountability can prosper only with a vigilant and involved citizenry.
COA created Citizen Participatory Audit project (CPA) – a mechanism for strategic partnership and sharing of aspirations, goals and objectives between the COA and civil society. Under CPA, public participation takes place at the last stage of the fiscal policy cycle: that is at the audit stage. Citizen auditors participate on a voluntary, non-remuneration basis. They may be reimbursed for out of pocket expenses on board and lodging, transportation and other support expense. The main objective of CPA is to enhance government transparency through citizen participation in the audit process, guided by the principle that a vigilant and involved citizenry promotes greater accountability in government.
There are ten essential steps in every CPA: (1) Identification of the subject of audit (2) Determination of the nature and scope of citizen participation, (3) Identification of CSO partners, (4) Building a shared agenda,(5) Building capacity of citizen auditors, (6) Audit planning, (7) Initial conference with implementing agency of the subject of audit. (8) Data gathering and field work (9) Audit reporting and (10) Post-audit assessment.
The first three steps are completed by COA, with no CSO involvement; the fourth is undertaken with the identified CSOs and their nominee citizen auditors; steps 5 through 10 are completed by COA staff and the CSO auditors.
During CPA, special audit teams with COA and citizen auditors conduct performance audits of selected government programmes. This is an example of invited CSO participation, as opposed to standard CSO participation like other forms of participatory audit. In this form, non-COA auditors are given more roles and responsibilities and are present in all steps of the audit. When citizen auditors are “deputized” as COA auditors, they are expected to participate in the entire audit process, with their input on methodologies and approach bearing equal weight as any audit team member. COA members will have the rights to make the final decision.
There are three reasons why citizen audit is an important tool in fighting corruption:
First, citizen a participatory audit is a great entry point for citizen engagement in the fight against corruption. It gives citizens insights about the inner workings of public institutions and gets them into the habit of holding government to account. Experience from Guatemala and Peru shows that citizens who engage in one social audit move on to join others.
Second, citizen participatory audit is a powerful tool to uncover irregularities and malpractices in the public sector. Citizen audit has led to public officials being convicted for violating the right to information law in Guatemala, a 50% reduction in the costs of public construction works in Peru and the abolition of an illegal education fee in Ghana.
Third, citizen participatory audit pushes for more transparency and accountability in the public sector. Without access to public information, citizen audit will fail as there will be nothing to audit. Submitting information requests or signing agreements to access public documents facilitates transparency of the public sector and asserts citizens right to access information.
About three years back, the Auditor’s General said that his department is planning on implementing a Citizen Participatory Audit to enhance the performance, efficiency and effectiveness of the public sector service. However, no updates are available on the issue.
It’s time we make a serious study on this proven concept!