We don’t need heroes

February 21,2015

It is generally believed that heroic and larger-than-life individuals are the key to good governance and bringing about change in structures responsible for service delivery. The ‘messiah syndrome’ plays down the importance of building institutions as a panacea for governance issues as it puts too much premium on the relevance

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It is generally believed that heroic and larger-than-life individuals are the key to good governance and bringing about change in structures responsible for service delivery. The ‘messiah syndrome’ plays down the importance of building institutions as a panacea for governance issues as it puts too much premium on the relevance of individuals to the sustainability of state institutions.
Undoubtedly leaders and outstanding individuals matter for governance. The role of leadership being essential for economic growth has been emphasised much. But such belief is not an absolute truth as leaders can promote good governance and change only if they are able to institutionalise such change and reform.
Good governance does not necessarily require heroes. What is required are institutional changes aimed at increasing the capacity of the state to deliver quality services. At present there is widespread mistrust and cynicism among the people regarding the state and the performance of its institutions. Restoring this trust is thus at the heart of any positive change in society. However, restoration of the trust will not be possible unless the government introduces structural reforms to reinvest its institutions.
Such governance reforms can, broadly, be divided into three areas. The first relates to expanding the capacity of its institutions and executives to improve efficiency in delivery of public goods. An effective government is one that responds to the needs of the people and is accountable to them. We are caught in a strange imbroglio where a common man has to run from the pillar to post to get even the basic of public services, which a state is otherwise supposed to provide. When I say basic services, I am not talking of something the government is required to bring from Mars. I am simply talking about provision of fundamental human rights as enshrined in the constitution – such as right to security, justice, and protection of life, property and dignity.
But the key question is: where do we start to salvage the situation and empower the executive institutions to cater for the increasing expectations of the people? To begin with, fundamental reforms are needed to improve the judicial system of the country. Dispensation of speedy and cost-free justice is the overriding requirement for good governance. The concept of good governance is embedded in the concept of rule of law since both are intertwined. The existing judicial system is class-based.
There is no denying the fact that the process of justice is tilted in favour of the wealthy and influential sections of society who are powerful enough to buy justice. Investigations face inordinate delays. And if at all they are completed, they happened to be flawed and hence unable to stand scrutiny in a court of law. Evidence is not properly collected. Security is not provided to the investigators and the witnesses. Corruption and political interference compromises investigations. Those who are poor feel disempowered and are compelled to resort to the informal forums that are managed and manipulated by the local elite.
The problem of poor dispensation of justice is rooted in the socio-economic structures of society. We are fasting turning into a society where everything is up for sale. According to Professor Michael Sandel, it is due to two reasons – one, inequality and the other, corruption. For example in a highly unequal society where everything is up for sale, it is hard for the poor to get justice.
In the context of justice, more money can buy smart legal counsels who can outsmart the process of the administration of justice by seeking adjournments, filing frivolous applications and flouting the process of administration for all purposes. Most of the issues our judicial system is facing can be resolved through internal reforms of the judicial system. For example frivolous litigation, open-ended stay orders, and liberal adjournments of cases should be discouraged to reduce their workload.
Courts may impose heavy costs to discourage frivolous litigation and party/legal counsel may be charged some fee for adjournments. Performance monitoring of the lower courts through regular inspections and speedy investigations of complaints against them can be helpful in making them accountable. The judiciary is now handsomely paid and part of the pay of the judges of the lower judiciary can be linked to the disposal of cases and the quality of decisions.
Good governance also requires an efficient government that reduces the costs of citizens’ interaction with the public sector, achieves value for money in public spending, and delivers quality services at a low cost. All these things are possible through a competent and clean civil service, which is the bedrock of good governance. It essentially requires two things – professionalising the civil service and preventing the politicisation of the bureaucracy. What is also required is that those responsible for service delivery are sensitive to the needs of the people.
The tragic part of the story in our country is that the aloofness of a public servant from the man on the street is considered a so-called OLQ (officer-like quality). The system has institutionalised this aloofness through GORs, official cars and clubs. This ‘institutionalised aloofness’ needs to be abolished, and there need to be reforms in the areas of training, recruitment, and compensation. There are vast disparities in the civil service cadres and the pay structures that need to be eliminated and gaps bridged to add to quality of service.
We must keep in mind that good governance does not necessarily require towering politicians and public sector experts. What it requires are humble people with small egos who are sincere to their cause, able to build teams and institutionalise such changes. Small symbolic gestures can even result in big changes in society. Sergio Fajardo, the mayor of Medellin, announced the day he assumed office that all beauty contests financed with public resources were suspended. This included the Miss Medellin contest as well. He announced that the beauty contest would be replaced by a ‘woman with talent’ contest that would reward women in Medellin who had done remarkable job in the fields of science, technology, entrepreneurship, culture, and arts.
Another example again from Colombia is that of Antanas Mockus who was elected mayor of Bogota. He was professor of mathematics and philosophy before becoming mayor and did not have any political experience but transformed Bogota with a programme called the ‘Citizen Culture’. Several other instances can be found in other countries as well.
The point is that good governance does not necessarily come from high-sounding reforms. You do not need international consultants to make you learn good governance. What you need is rule of law, sincerity of purpose, sensitisation regarding the problems of the common man, and the capacity to institutionalise change so that the structures you have built do not crumble once you are no more in a position of authority or power.
Those who subscribe to a solo flight on matters of governance can hardly introduce lasting positive changes. If some heinous crime takes place and the man sitting on the top takes cognizance and calls for a report, that is not good governance or for that matter governance at all. The system should respond automatically to bring the culprits to justice. That is how we can restore the trust of the people in state institutions – and perhaps it is not a big deal if one has the authority and will to deliver.
The writer is a graduate of Columbia University.
Email: jamilnasir1969gmail.com Twitter: Jamilnasir1


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