What is good governance?
Clearly 'good governance' is the buzzword of Sri Lanka’s ruling coalition. But if the ongoing debate between its two main partners—the UNP and the SLFP—is any indication, there seems to be little consensus within the coalition on what the concept is or how to implement it. Worst still, different coalition members seem to interpret the concept in ways that serve their own narrow political interests. The UNP wants the Executive Presidency abolished at the earliest, while the SLFP is not in any rush to do that and is calling for the mere trimming of Presidential powers instead. It is quite clear where each party is trying to go with good governance reforms. But with the concept interpreted in such self-serving ways, the question is where they see the interests of average citizens fitting in.
In reality, the concept of good governance centers on the responsibility of the government to meet the needs of all citizens instead of a handful of political elites. As such, good governance entails a form of decision-making that is participatory, accountable, transparent, responsive, and efficient. In other words, good governance implies a comprehensive change in the social contract between the State and citizens (agreement between the rulers and the ruled) rather than a mere reorganization of the country’s political institutions. Therefore, more than the ongoing Presidential vs. Parliamentary debate, something that speaks better to the objectives of good governance is what President Sirisena promised in his inaugural address—to be not a king but a public servant. This is a powerful statement and underlines the shift in mentality that good governance implies. We simply have to quit paying homage to our political leaders as if they were kings and realize that they are at our service.
Let us use a somewhat crude analogy to understand where the Presidential vs. Parliamentary argument fits within the overall good governance agenda. Think of having your house built. And for argument's sake, imagine it being built by two discrete teams. The skilled workers (masons, carpenters, electricians etc.) on one side and a general contractor (who oversees the skilled workers and coordinates their efforts with the planners, architects, engineers etc.) on the other. Roughly, if we equate the skilled workers to the country's Executive (President + Cabinet) the general contractor then becomes the Parliament. In that situation, the Presidential vs. Parliamentary debate only speaks to the working-arrangement between these two teams.
While such a working-arrangement is important, that alone will not ensure that the house is built on time, according to specifications, and within budget. Several other accountability relationships would have to be created as well. For instance, we will need a mechanism to hold the general contractor accountable (the role an independent judiciary plays in governance). Also, we/our representatives should be able to make regular visit to the worksite to supervise the progress (typically civil society organizations play this role in governance). Finally, a friendly neighbor who can regularly update us on the day-to-day activities at the worksite would be helpful (the role of media in governance).
What we are trying to argue is that despite the obvious preoccupation of the ruling coalition on the Presidential vs. Parliamentary debate, it is not the be-all-and-end-all of good governance. Therefore, if it is serious about ushering-in good governance, it has to introduce reforms in several other areas as well. In the coming weeks we will examine these different areas at Lankaforum.