The decision to shut down the refinery may be the right one, given the state of the refinery operations, but it may not be; and it obviously is not the only option that could have been pursued. The question is whether the political choice is properly informed, weighing all material factors (including the views and the impact on those affected) and with public interest as the primary driver. If little information is shared as to the informing economic factors and the assessment, if any, that was made of the human, social and enviromental impact of the choice, then, as a citizen I am disenfranchised.
The issue and continuing backlash, debate and polarization surrounding the sending home of thousands of workers places a spotlight on a fundamental and intractable meta-challenge in 21st century democracies.
Should citizens be able to participate in economic decision-making (spend, buy, invest, sell, dispose or tax) which necessarily involves the use of public money and assets and impacts on the quality of their lives and those of future generations? And if so, how? Is voting every five years enough?
And what of transparency and disclosure of process, and material information relating to public decisions? What of prior consultation, public dialogues, public-private committees?
There may be no ‘objective’ or ultimately ‘correct’ analysis of the economic case for closure, but there has to be an evidential basis for such momentous decisions, not merely an ideological one. The weighing of evidence in public before such a decision is made would be a sign of a mature and healthy polity.
Citizen participation is the cornerstone of every democracy and yet the bar for what is considered acceptable levels of citizen participation differs among political systems. The health of a democracy can be measured by the levels of transparency, participation and accountability for public decision-making. Even so, while there are developing legal standards for transparency (through access to information laws) and accountability (through integrity codes and anti-corruption laws) which have become entrenched in the psyche of modern citizens, the idea of citizen participation in governance beyond the vote, remains the most opaque, under-regulated and hotly contested arena of the three.
Citizen participation in the public decision making process is a question of citizen power. Once viewed through the lens of power-bartering and power re-distribution, the question arises as to what is the ultimate end of progressive levels of citizen participation. And once we reflect on that question it becomes obvious why it is the area in which citizens have made the least progress: because power is not easily or voluntarily ceded to the governed, but must be bartered, struggled for or taken by force.
In 1969 Sherry Arnstein famously conceptualized this continuum as the “ladder of citizen participation” (see Figure E-1) moving from non-participation through degrees of tokenism and then to actual citizen power. Taking the decision to close the refinery as a case, how
do you feel in terms of your level of participation? Do you feel you were entitled to be on a higher rung? And if not, what does this say of your view of your role in a democracy? These questions are not posed to suggest that there is a right or wrong answer here but simply that there is a question to be asked. Depending on who is answering there will be different perspectives on the level of citizen participation involved in the decision to close the refinery. The task ahead however is for each of us as citizens to determine what level of participation we had, what level of participation we would have liked to have had and if there is a gap to analyse the roadblocks toward closing the gap.
Democratizing public decision-making through the struggle for new laws on the right to public consultation, participatory governance and budgeting is a hopeful snail’s strategy. This requires not only, increased knowledge, coordination of lobbying efforts across multiple stakeholders, and focused effort over time but most times that fortuitous momentum provided by a good public scandal.
Many of us view ourselves within a paradigm of governors versus the governed. This is unsurprising given that politicians appear to be less the public servants they advertise themselves to be, but more independent actors who ‘know best’. Persuading Government to see itself as, at least, partners in our human, social and economic development could change the dynamic from one where citizens complain to one where citizens contribute. Focusing on community based initiatives and entrepreneurship to address local challenges of crime and security, health, education, the environment could produce opportunities for public-private partnerships and innovative co-governance deals which are usually machinated only by the proactive elite among us who are not easily distracted by party colours.
Some say that we have the governance we deserve; the consequence of lazy citizenship simply maintaining the status quo. I disagree: we deserve more. But moving up the citizen-participation ladder also requires more from us … not just those we have elected to serve.
Column published in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian on 27th September 2018