More, not less, public information critical to national development

Sunday, October 20, 2019

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Good public policy requires factual information be made available to the public in full and on a timely basis, the guiding principle being to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Apart from the moral rectitude of this dictum, the additional benefits include ascertaining the opinion of the people who elected politicians to govern on their behalf. Public opinion will tell politicians what the people want and do not want.

Public support makes implementation of government programmes easier, for example, restricting opening hours for businesses in areas under curfew. It can help the Government in its negotiation with external entities such as the International Monetary Fund and in enforcement of regulations.

In an electoral democracy with two competing parties, telling the whole truth is not always in the interest of politicians who either want to retain political power or gain political office, and many prevent the free flow of information because it is not in their interest.

There are several things to notice about their respect or lack of respect for truthful information:

First, there is selective dispensation of facts, limiting the information to that which is favourable to them and concealing what is or could be unfavourable. The usual specious explanation is that of the need for confidentiality. The attitude to secrecy was recently revealed with the proposed 70-year ban on Cabinet deliberations which, thankfully, was withdrawn after public disapproval.

Second, substituting fake information for facts. There is a pandemic of fake information in some countries which claim to be models of democracy. Too often, politicians hear only that part of public opinion that is supportive or convenient.

Third, changing positions depending on which side of Gordon House they are sitting. Politicians take one position when in Government but hold the opposite position when they are in the Opposition benches.

Fourth, and most prevalent, is not discussing the facts about the true state of affairs and what has actually been done, but instead talking about what is planned for the future. This announcement usually provides several bites at the cherry, but the project might never materialise.

Fifth, selecting comparisons that make Jamaica's situation or achievements look better than they really are. The hype about Jamaica's one per cent growth in GDP because it is better than in the past when, by any standard, this is not good. China is worried because its growth has slipped to six per cent.

Comparisons that make Jamaica look bad, such as with Singapore, are dismissed as special cases and therefore not applicable. We select comparators that make us look good, eg best in the Caribbean, when in music and athletics we measure ourselves against the best in the world.

Politicians are not always in a position to fully divulge information because some level of confidentiality is always necessary, especially that to do with our national security and international negotiations and obligations.

But this is not what we are at issue with. For some politicians, just hiding information from the public is a daily sport. And that is to the detriment of our national development.


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