Ghana is regarded as a shining star in Africa when it comes to democracy. However, many will agree that our democracy must grow beyond conducting peaceful elections every four years. If indeed “democracy is the government of the people, by the people, and for the people” as claimed by Abraham Lincoln, then it is important that citizens participate in decision-making.
According to the OECD, there are three levels at which governments can interact with citizens. They are the provision of information, consultation and active participation. The use these forms of public engagement will ensure greater transparency. Having the public as part of the decision-making process also leads to greater accountability as they serve as a control. While decision-making that involves a large number of individuals and groups with their own ideologies and views has its own disadvantages, it is likely to lead to higher level of legitimacy. Furthermore, different opinions may lead to more policy options and quality decisions.
Despite all the accolades we have earned as a democratic state, there is still the need to improve citizen-government engagement. In the area of provision of information, there is need to ensure that information is given willingly and when demanded. In this regards, it is important for citizens to put pressure on both the Executive and the Legislature to pass the Right to Information Bill which has been pending since it was first discussed in 2001. One will argue that with the proliferation of the media outlets, the government has opened up the communication space for vibrant debate and discussion on national issues. However, we need to make use of this opportunity by discussing pertinent issues that aid policy and decision making instead of devoting most of our time to discussing partisan politics.
To move public engagement between government and citizens a notch higher, there is the need for government to organise consultations in the form of town hall meetings, setting up of working groups, stakeholder consultations, etc. in order to seek the opinion of citizens for policy formulation and public decision-making. In Ghana, there have been several instances where committees have been set up by the government, citizens are invited to share their opinions but the government fails to comment on the report for a long time. This attitude has the tendency of leading to lower public participation in decision-making. It is impossible, for instance, for the government to respond to every citizen who comments on a new proposed bill but there is the need for feedback in the form of a summary that reflects the views of the citizens who participated.
While we improve consultations by the government, we also need to think about active participation by citizens. With active participation, the government considers citizens, and civil society for that matter, as equal partners in the democratic process of public decision-making. Active participation means citizens must be able to put forward proposals for new policies or join the government in drafting policies.
After almost a quarter of a century of democracy, there is no doubt about Ghana’s ability to transfer peacefully the management of the country from one political party to the other. However, citizen participation in decision-making cannot be reduced to universal adult suffrage and arguments on radio and TV. While concluding I will make three suggestions. First, we need to revisit the Right to Information Bill and get it passed. Furthermore, we must learn from other countries like the UK where there is A Code on the Practices of Consultations that is intended to harness consultation between government and civil society. Finally, active participation can be encouraged by introducing private bills as done in the UK.
Participation of NGOs in the process of policy- and law- making. Comparative Analysis, Bulgarian Center for Not-for-Profit Law, 2009