By Joan Ogeto
Public Office is for Serving Public Interest, not for Private Gain
Transparency and accountability are considered critical to the workings of government and the success of commercial businesses. Through the practice of internationally established standards of governance, private and public sectors can maintain economic growth.
Transparency refers specifically to administrative procedures through which institutions perform their functions. The focus is on whether these procedures are documented and accessible. The government and publicly held companies would then be open to public scrutiny. Accountability on the other hand pertains to the relationship between citizens and government officials or in the commercial context, shareholders, and boards of directors.
There is a sense of obligation and a public service disposition among officials. Citizens or shareholders then have the power to sanction, impose costs, or remove officials for unsatisfactory performance or actions. One of the most important foundations of a democratic government is sound ethics management.
A high standard of management is essential, otherwise, there can be no trust or confidence in the integrity of public institutions or the value of democratic processes in promoting and protecting the interests of citizens. In addition, without checks and balances, a country and its political system face the threat of despotism. James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers that; “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty is this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.” Transparency acts as an accountability mechanism on the behavior of public officials and therefore is often quite closely related to the issue of corruption.
One way transparency can be achieved is through the implementation of accrual accounting. This is the form of accounting where transactions are required to be recorded regardless of when actual cash flow for the transactions is received. This basis of accounting is practiced in the private sector but the introduction of the New Public Management (NPM) initiative has made it part of the financial management improvement programme in the public sector.
The New Public Management (NPM) initiative was founded in the United Kingdom in 1979 and by the year 1991, it became a major reform strategy that was adopted by many countries around the world and practiced by most member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The New Public Management initiative aims to measure efficiency and to facilitate competition with the private sector.
It applies private-sector management approaches and techniques to public sector management. In recent years, some governments around the world embraced the NPM and engaged in various reforms including financial management reforms. These reforms have been gradually shifting governments from the traditional cash basis accounting practice to the accrual accounting basis. The financial reforms were prompted by the desire to eliminate inefficiency, poor service delivery, overspending, and lack of accountability. It was also meant to promote transparency and improve the quality of service delivery in public service. The initiative follows the accrual accounting standards issued by the International Public Sector Accounting Standards Board (IPSASB). There has been evidence suggesting a lack of accountability and transparency, especially in most African countries. Some government officials do not take responsibility for their decisions and actions, corrupt practices are widespread, government business is not transacted openly, financial reports are not prepared at the right time or openly and budgets are prepared on a cash basis. These issues led to the introduction of public sector financial reforms in 2003 by President Obasanjo’s administration. Nigeria adopted the International Public Sector Accounting Standards (IPSAS) cash basis of accounting as a foundation for migration into accrual basis accounting because it enhances accountability and transparency. It also allows for enhanced monitoring of government debt and liabilities for their true economic implications.
Another way would be the implementation of international standards on transparency and the exchange of information. This would be done through proactive disclosure or affirmative publication. This ensures that information seekers or citizens get immediate access to public information and avoid the costs of filing a request or engaging in administrative procedures. It involves instances such as public institutions publishing information on how taxpayer money is spent. It prompts openness on policy formulation and implementation in the national budget. This is especially important because this document highlights policy objectives across all spectrums such as economic, social, or environmental. A budget reporting system or regime to highlight this would provide clarity.
The clarity gained by the public on spending decisions would foster trust in government stewardship of public money. It forces governments to adopt a more open functioning that is unshielded to public scrutiny. In this sense, information itself may not necessarily be important, but rather how the potential release of this information causes officials to essentially ‘do the right thing’. It is therefore a vital tool in helping to reduce corrupt and rent-seeking behaviour.
It is important however to note that this public information is released in the first place by the government. In other words, there is no knowledge about whether the government might withhold information from the public. In addition, there is the possibility of a situation arising where public information could be over weighted in the minds of the general population and, if this information has a lot of noise, for example, GDP or inflation data, then it could be welfare reducing.
One final means by which transparency could be achieved is through the use of new Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) between the government and its citizens. It was acknowledged in the Global Forum on governance that “nothing is more powerful in combating corruption than conducting transactions openly and with public knowledge of the rules and criteria to be applied…and ICT can be a powerful tool for good governance.” If the right procedures are set up ICTs can be used to make administrative and financial transactions traceable and open to scrutiny. It will make it easier to identify decisions and activities by the government. Provision of enhanced accounting, monitoring, and auditing systems will ensure that officials can be held accountable for policy decisions and strategies. ICT when used as a tool for consultation and information, guarantees that citizens can be aware of all aspects of the government and this creates a culture of trust and mutual interest.
For some developing countries, however, where not every individual has computer-based internet access, efforts could be made to make information available on public notice boards, mobile phone platforms, or mass media such as FM radio or any other mass institutions.
Summarily, to attain success in public governance, officials are required to have personal integrity on top of expertise in their specific areas of practice such as auditing, accounting, law, financial analysis, management, and public administration.
Awareness of the basic concept of public service should be raised which is; public office is for serving public interests and not private gain. Furthermore, public servants or the wider public could engage in the development of policy standards to ensure that these standards accurately reflect public expectations.
There should be an assurance that those who report violations like whistleblowers are protected. Furthermore, the establishment of an efficient and transparent budget system will be useful. Due to the direct link between the economic and social growth of a country and government performance, a clear budget reporting system must be formulated. Th is would include a comprehensive fi nancial reporting on the budget with an annual review of performance and budget by political decision-makers.
Finally, the existence of a strong public presence for scrutiny based on sound legal provisions on access to information will encourage an open government and improve the accountability and transparency of public administrators.
Th ere exist many international best practices for informing and educating academics, business people, political leaders, the media, and others who can work together to advocate on behalf of this issue. To gain perspective, certain questions need to be raised such as: What is the relationship between transparency, accountability, and poverty? What is the relationship between transparency and accountability and trade? Th ese will help any society develop appropriate tools of transparency, including skills for auditing, accounting, enforcing, and so forth.
Accountability and transparency in the public sector allow a system of governance where government offi cials and administrators apply the principle of honesty in all areas whether locally or nationally. Th is ensures that governments are administered effi ciently and are free of corruption. Th is is also an attempt to ensure that the parts of government that are supposed to prevent corruption in areas such as budgeting, monitoring, evaluation, and enforcement have not themselves become corrupted. Th e challenge that arises therefore is determining eff ective measures countries can take to ensure absolute accountability and transparency from public administrators and offi cials. Good governance is a generally agreed principle which governments and organizations should aspire to accomplish while accountability and transparency are indispensable features of democracy.
Th e writer is a lawyer firstname.lastname@example.org