I capitalize here on the recent Woolford-Nascimento-Vieira public feud to make two overarching suggestions to serve, I hope, the cause of good governance. First, the time is right for the Ministry of the Presidency to issue a code of conduct for public agencies to regulate how they publicly respond to what citizens say about them in the press. The code must require agencies to (i) respect the public’s right to ask and to know about the workings of their institutions, and (ii) adhere to the tenets of civility and professionalism, irrespective of the motive, tone, or accuracy of public comments. Good governance is undermined when public agencies adopt a confrontational and personalized attitude to public comments they do not like. In the process, the provision of useful information gets undermined and the desire of citizens to add their voices to public debate is extinguished.
In fairness, matters could be helped if members of the public are themselves courteous. But for public institutions, this expectation rises to the level of an unwavering duty.
Secondly, the ability of citizens to answer the call to prove their allegations against state agencies can be immensely enhanced if these entities live up to the letter and spirit of our own Access to Information Act of 2011. Its stated goal reads: “to provide for setting out a practical regime of right to information for persons to secure access to information under the control of public authorities in order to promote transparency and accountability in the working of the Government and public authorities.” Within the act, much attention has fallen on the office of the Commissioner of Information. But the true essence and power of the act are captured by its section 13(3), which states: “It shall be a constant endeavour of every public authority to take steps in accordance with this Act to provide as much information of its own volition to the public at regular intervals through various means of communication so that the public have minimum necessity to have recourse to the provisions of this Act to obtain information.” The onus therefore is on public institutions to be both relentless and proactive in providing information to the public. If realized, citizens can more easily use publicly-accessible information to prove any allegation (or any praise) they choose to make.
It is commendable that most local public agencies have websites. But the content of many of them needs to be expanded to become extensive informational and educational sources for public consumption. State agencies must take the public’s right to ask and know more seriously.