Moses, Rameses, and public accountability

Henry J

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

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We all make mistakes, but it is when we fail to take responsibility for or blame others for them that we fail as persons and as leaders. — Thuli Madonsela

As I reflected on the Petrojam scandal over the past couple of weeks, I thought to myself, “Maybe I should develop a course on accountability for all politicians, especially those in Government, so that the country can enjoy a higher quality of governance.”

I have decided to call the course 'Governance Innovation and Leadership 101'. The following units will be taught:

• Unit 1: Accountability to the Citizenry

• Unit 2: Introduction to the people's business

• Unit 3: The art and science of taking responsibility

• Unit 4:The anatomy of political resignations

• Unit 5: Ethical leadership and integrity management

• Unit 6: Executive decision-making in times of crisis

• Unit 7: Good governance and answerability

• Unit 8: Dangers of governing with 'Wakanda' energy (optional)

Each course will, of necessity, have general and specific objectives and will, no doubt, expose candidates to the practical and deliverable aspects of each focus. Units 1-7 are compulsory, while unit 8 is optional for those who want to be exposed to something new and different.

Today I thought I'd shed some light on Unit 1 (accountability to the citizenry), but first let me begin with circumstances you might have read about in the Bible or watched in a scene from an old, animated movie — The Prince of Egypt.

In this scene, Moses had accidentally killed a slave driver and is trying to run away when his adoptive brother and heir to Pharoah's throne, Rameses, approaches him.

“No, wait!” Rameses calls out.

“You saw what happened! I just killed a man,” is Moses' reply.

“We can take care of that. I will make it so it never happened,” Rameses reassures Moses.

“Nothing you can say will change what I've done,” Moses replies.

Then Rameses says “I am Egypt! The morning and the evening star! If I say day is night, it will be written. And you will be what I say you are. And I say you are innocent!” he says as he places his hands on his brother Moses.

But Moses' response is, “What you say does not matter! You don't understand…”

The one lesson all politicians, and by extension all of us, can draw from the dialogue is that accountability in human life has personal and ethical dimensions, in addition to answerability to others, including authorities charged with enforcement.

One of the things that struck me as I watched the Prince of Egypt movie were the different value systems that appear to inform the conduct and behaviour of Moses and Rameses, regardless of them being said to be 'brothers'.

It appears to me that Moses' value system drives him to make a personal choice to be held accountable for his actions, while his brother takes the view that, as a prince of Egypt, Moses can be placed beyond answerability. How many Rameseses in public and private life can you think of?

I can hear you say, “Too many to mention.”

No one, whether prime minister or his ministers of government, Opposition leader, commissioner of police, board chairman, etc, is beyond answerability. I think this simple fact is forgotten among our political leaders. In the public accountability discourse, Rameses' actions would be regarded as aiding impunity. In the rule of law movement, such conduct would be viewed as inimical to the rule of law.

The same applies to public accountability. Meaningful public accountability involves personal ethics and external oversight or enforcement.

I like what the great Nelson Mandela said: “Even the most benevolent of governments are made up of people with all the propensities for human failings. The rule of law, as we understand it, consists in the set of conventions and arrangements that ensures that it is not left to the whims of individual rulers to decide on what is good for the populace. The administrative conduct of government and authorities are subject to scrutiny of independent organs. This is an essential element of good governance that we have sought to have built into our new constitutional order.”

What do we mean by accountability to the citizenry? Who is accountable to whom, why and how? In the context of politics, accountability is the obligation of the minister of government and their administrative staff to be answerable for all decisions made and actions taken by them, and to be responsible for honouring their commitments, without qualification or exception.

Accountability includes achieving objectives and high-quality results in a timely and cost-effective manner, in fully implementing and delivering on all mandates to the particular ministry approved by the Cabinet, intergovernmental bodies and other subsidiary organs established by them in compliance with all resolutions, regulations, rules and ethical standards; truthful, objective, accurate and timely reporting on performance results; responsible stewardship of funds and resources; all aspects of performance, including a clearly defined system of rewards and sanctions; and with due recognition to the critical role of oversight bodies and in full compliance with accepted recommendations.

Now, having read that, where is the accountability to the citizenry?

One of the things we can glean from the statement is that accountability in the exercise of entrusted power incorporates answerability and taking responsibility.

Professor of public administration at the Utrecht School of Governance, Sweden, Mike Bovens, in his article titled 'Two concepts of accountability', defines accountability as: “A relationship between an actor and a forum, in which the actor has an obligation to explain and to justify his or her conduct, the forum can pose questions and pass judgement, and the actor can be sanctioned.”

Bovens goes further to break accountability into the following constituent elements: A relationship qualifies as a case of accountability when:

1. There is a relationship between an actor (minister) and a forum (the people of Jamaica)

2. In which the actor (minister) is obliged

3. To explain (to the citizenry) and justify

4. His (or her) conduct

5. The forum (citizenry) can pose questions

6. Pass judgement

7. And the actor (minister) can be sanctionead.

This is the approach that is needed in the Petrojam saga. It should not be left only to the parliamentarians to ask questions? The citizenry should be given an opportunity to pose questions and then pass their own judgement. Political leaders, political party leaders, academics, lawyers, the judiciary, business leaders, and civil society representatives should decide and agree that public accountability includes answerability, taking responsibility, and making amends in the event of wrongdoing.

Citizens should not merely be confined to asking questions, but should be meaningfully involved in deciding the agenda for action that is to form the basis for answerability later. This added dimension is apparent in the definition of accountability offered by, which provides that public accountability refers to:

“Obligations of public enterprises and agencies (who are entrusted with public resources) to be answerable for fiscal and social responsibilities, to those who have assigned such responsibilities to them.”

Bovens says accountability operates along the principal-agent relationship. The people, as principals, appoint a few through an electoral process that takes place once every five years, and delegates to these (trusted) few the authority to take care of their collective resources and regulation of their affairs. It is done in good faith, with the understanding that the selected few will always act in accordance with the authority given by the people through the constitution and laws and will put public interest first.

It is worth noting, though, that at any given time the people can question the exercise of the said authority directly, through petitions and related measures. With advances in technology and access to information made possible through freedom of the media this direct accountability is made easier these days. It is the duty of those entrusted with public power to be answerable, take responsibility, and make amends on their own when there has been wrongdoing.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness, in the absence of the job descriptions you promised your ministers, I strongly recommend that you mandate each of them to join you in taking this new course developed with you in mind: Governance Innovation and Leadership 101.

There are 63 seats available in the class. The first assignment before joining the class is to explain this saying: “A fish rot from the head.”

See you in class!

Henry J Lewis is a lecturer at the University of Technology, Jamaica, School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Send comments to the Observer or

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