As direct as the headline reads, it is a simple fact that in a democracy when a public official assumes office and the responsibilities that come with it; they acknowledge that their primary responsibility is to serve the interests of an ordinary citizen first and foremost.
Similarly, when public officials, including the President, ministers, Members of Parliament, Governors, ambassadors, Directors General, and mayors are elected by citizens or appointed to office by relevant authorities, they all have a duty to remain accountable to the ordinary citizen who works tirelessly to pay their wages and to contribute to the development of this nation.
It is without a doubt that the interests of an ordinary citizen should remain paramount throughout any decision-making stage of any public office in land.
Incidentally, on March 8, at least two-hundred of the highest ranking government officials in Rwanda congregated at the RDF Combat Training Centre in Gabiro, for the 11th Annual Leadership Retreat in which participants discussed, among other things, accountable governance – seen as a key driver of the implementation of the country’s Economic Development and Poverty Reduction Strategy II (EDPRSII).
In his opening remarks at the retreat, President Paul Kagame made reference to what he regarded as a less than impressive projection of Rwanda’s annual economic growth rate which is likely to be around six percent.
For Rwanda to achieve the goals set under EDPRSII, the economy is required to grow at annual rate of 11.5 percent. As a result, President Kagame challenged leaders to be more accountable for their actions, and also noted that “we should be able to clarify where we fell short, by whom, why, and what needs to be done to change that”.
In retrospect, should ordinary citizens who are stakeholders in the process of development be concerned with the setback in economic growth projection? Better still, how should ordinary citizens go about demanding accountability of this setback? And what is even more important, what is their role in putting us back on course?
Over the years, accountability and demand for results has remained relevant in the discourse of governance.
In fact, the concept has evolved to stay relevant with the changing nature of public service delivery, but all in all, the theory revolves around a principle to which an individual or an institution is responsible for a set of duties and can be required to give an account of their fulfilment to an authority that is in a position to issue rewards or punishment.
In my modest opinion, ordinary citizens have a duty to ensure that the hold-up in economic growth is short-term and that it is kept to a minimum by relevant authorities.
Similarly, to ensure that mistakes of the past are not repeated, citizens are capable of holding public officials and public institutions accountable in three ways: consultation and feedback; transparency in decision-making; and access to information.
Consultations and feedback
Several scholars have argued that public consultations and feedback are some of the many ways to engage the ordinary citizen in decision-making. For instance, consultations made by government officials and institutions alike encourage citizens to familiarise themselves with the wider government agenda, which can spark an interest in the proceedings of government.
Particularly, consultations and feedback are more likely to boost the interest of young people who tend to find political dealings dull and out of touch. Open public engagements can be encouraged with the use of televised policy debates, feedback sessions, surveys, and when necessary, through open letters to the public explaining policy decisions.
Transparency in decision-making
Public officials make decisions that affect the lives of millions of Rwandans daily. Consequently, it is vital that the decision-making process is transparent and that Rwandan citizens have their say on intended policy.
Notably, Coglianese et al (2008) remark that the process of transparency encompasses varied opportunities for ordinary citizens, private sector actors, nongovernmental organisations, and several others outside government to contribute to and comment on proposed policies. Access to information on how decisions are made is critical in this process, and can be enhanced by attaching statutory obligations on public institutions to regularly update their information portals to be available in all of the country’s official languages.
Access to information
The government must continue to make public information readily and widely available to ordinary citizens to encourage them to assess the work carried out by public officials. It can be safely assumed that with access to information comes confidence, and with confidence, citizens are more likely to engage with the wider government development agenda, which puts citizens in a central position to question and comment on the progress of the work of government as a collective entity.
In other words, a citizen’s access to information has a potential to go a long way in influencing the way a leader thinks, but, more importantly, the way a leader performs.
All things considered, Gibson et al (1996) observe that “it will no longer be sufficient for public officials and local governments to demonstrate efficiency and sound business principles...they must go further to demonstrate their accountability for the appropriate, proper and intended use of resources”.
As ordinary citizens, we have a duty to instigate accountability processes bottom-up. To do that, we must be able and willing to engage in the decision-making processes that affect our lives on a daily basis.
The writer is a UK Parliamentary Intern and holds a Master of Science in Public Service Policy.