Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Conversation or mamaguy?


Mark Fraser

“There will be a variety of different ways to participate in the National Conversation, including a website which has been launched to solicit and gather feedback.” This announcement at the recent low-key launch of the “Conversation”, complemented the key questions posed: “What makes Trinidad and Tobago such a great nation? What problems or issues do you think the Government should focus most on to improve people’s lives today? What problems or issues do you think the Government should focus most on to help develop and improve the nation over the next ten years?” 

Clicking on the website results in disappointment; it lacks both content and context. Routine information about goals, objectives and process is absent. Similarly, one finds no definition of issues or explanation of the what, why, how, when, ultimate outcome, follow-up and timing of this exercise, to convey serious intent and stimulate interest. Pious prose invites us to supply name, address, e-mail address and cell phone number “... to receive calls and texts ... from the OPM that may be automatically dialled or pre-recorded.” Otherwise, further access is denied. Of what relevance is my address, e-mail co-ordinates and cell number? 

The current state of the country does not inspire confidence in sharing such personal data; there being grave misgivings about its use and the potential harassment arising from expressing contrary or dissenting views. 

The timing of this project (so near the general election), its vague details and apparent inadequate preparation prompt suspicion of a disingenuous attempt at vote-seeking, funded by taxpayers.

A promising initiative seems destined to peter out as a damp squib—yet another PR gimmick!

The National Conversation raised expectations of an attempt to formally recruit citizen involvement in national affairs. Some dared to hope that the deliberations would be transformative, a step towards governance reform. Others perceived it as an opportunity for citizens to receive long overdue recognition as respected partners in development. 

After 50 years of Independence, frustration of participation without empowerment continues to breed emptiness and foster resentment. Inevitably, this has resulted in a more fractured and self-centred society: quite the opposite of what politicians profess they intend!

Frank, periodic conversations between the people and their government are welcome and invaluable for breathing life into democracy. One should not underestimate the tremendous potential to reduce societal tension and release pent-up energy and creative insight which, properly channelled, can only redound to the good of the country. But such initiatives must be meaningful, formalised and structured as an integral aspect of systemic governance reform; anything less risks adding to already high levels of frustration in the society. 

The effectiveness of the National Conversation very much depends on its preparation and organisation. Success is more likely if it emerges as the culmination of a series of more decentralised, well-publicised consultations attracting a wide participatory base. Arrangements must be conducive to eliciting people’s views and stimulating contestation of ideas on issues, preferably in face-to-face interactions. Importantly, citizen-participants must be accorded respect. Such an undertaking demands immense skill in facilitation to yield desired outcomes and avoid the unwanted status of another talkfest.

This launch asks questions about the real impulse for the vow “... to hold the largest public consultation ever in T&T’s history...” We may be better served by civil society organising and facilitating the National Conversation as a facet of our reformed governance mechanisms.

Winston R Rudder 

Petit Valley