All good-thinking citizens must critically analyse the utterances of senior Government officials, mining them for gems that might foretell policy and Government action. So it must be with the Prime Minister’s New Year message in which she professes to lead a government that listens and reportedly “...vowed to hold the largest public consultation ever in T&T’s history... The national conversation ...”
Arguably laudable, perhaps too long in coming, this initiative has the potential to turn the prevailing governance system on its head. It may be interpreted as a clarion call, the decisive response to a compelling demand by citizens and the urgings of civil society organisations for greater citizen inclusion in all facets of national decision-making. But wait, let not eager anticipation blind us, leading to unfounded expectations!
A conversation, be it national or otherwise, is variously defined as no more than: “... an informal talk”; “an informal discussion of a matter by representatives of governments ...” Therefore, we need to ask and have answered some key questions: what is the nature of this phenomenon, “The national conversation”?
Is its purposes, format, prior shared information and documentation etc? What of its timing—in a pre-election year?
Is it intended and how likely or feasible is it to influence plan and programme development and re-direct Government expenditure?
Is this a one-off event or to be institutionalised as an element of a new governance structure and system?
Very critically, does the Cabinet understand and subscribe to the intent?
These questions are neither trite nor whimsical. They are intended to avoid the pitfall of yet again taking citizens down the proverbial garden path by enjoining them in a process which is no more than an empty ritual of participation with no real power to affect outcomes.
True citizen participation means citizen power. It is “... the re-distribution of power that enables the have-not citizens, presently excluded from the political and economic processes, to be deliberately included ...” So the further question is whether this is a genuine attempt to formally recruit involvement of the have-nots in determining how information is shared, goals and policies are set, resources are allocated, programmes are operated and benefits are parcelled out.
In other words is it an integral aspect of institutionalising changes in governance, the required reforms, to enable citizens to share more equitably in the benefits of an affluent Trinidad and Tobago?
You see, having graduated from being non-participants in decision-making to beneficiaries of tokenism—being informed, consulted and placated, we the people yearn to taste the fruits of citizen power; being acknowledged as respected partners in development, exercising delegated power and a measure of citizen control over negotiated matters.
Our experience after some five decades of Independence is that participation without redistribution of power is just so much rhetoric —a frustrating process for the powerless. For it allows the power-holders to claim that all sides were considered, but makes it possible for only the few to benefit. It maintains the status quo.
The emptiness and frustration experienced by citizens lead inevitably to a more fractured and self-centred society, very much the opposite of what politicians claim they want!
Essentially, that has been our development experience!
Therefore, Prime Minister, bring on The National Conversation. But let us have prior conversations on these matters before that seminal event.
Winston R Rudder