Democratic Governance and the Social Condition in the Anglophone Caribbean (Regional Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean, united Nations Development Programme, 1996).
Selwyn Ryan

 

Parliamentary Accountability and Control

 

One of the problems faced by small states in securing parliamentary accountability is that the size of parliaments and the trained elite do not allow certain conventional control mechanisms to be utilized. In larger political systems it is possible to put in place elaborate committee systems to monitor and scrutinize government budgets and other activities. It is even the norm in some countries to have such committees chaired by 'back-benchers' or members of rival parties. Such arrangements do not work in small states, either because Parliaments meet infrequently or because the opposition is often too small and too weak to provide the human resources and expertise needed to staff such committees. Party loyalty and discipline also mean that 'back-benchers' invariably support the executive since they wish to avoid scoring 'own goals' that embarrass their party. The former Leader of the Opposition and current Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago objected to the use of 'back benchers' from the Ruling party to chair committees of Parliament. In his view, this would be tantamount to f~ putting the "rat to guard the cheese" (Panday, 1993. 17).

 

Similar observations regarding the limited utility of parliamentary control on executives in small states were made by Dr. Ralph Gonzales (1993: 17), the leader of an opposition party in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. He itemized the weaknesses as follows:

...the small size Parliament, with or no critical. 'back-benchers'; high percentage of Parliamentarians as Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries; the dominant position of the executive in managing the economy and polity; the political imperatives of a competitive party system; the tendency of the electorate to hold party leaders in reverence; and the spoils system of politics which encourages executive patronage and corruption.

 

The small size of Parliaments also means that Prime Ministers are limited in their ability to reshuffle Cabinet Ministers or, when appropriate, call upon them to resign. In large Parliaments, the Prime Minister can bring in 'back-benchers' to replace ministerial incumbents. In small Parliaments this option is not typically available unless an appointment is made via the Senate, where such an institution exists and constitutional arrangements allow.

 

Gonzales notes that this also applies to larger democratic states such as Great Britain, where the question of declining standards of public conduct[1] is currently under review. He cites Bernard Crick who is concerned about the impotence of the British Parliament vis--vis the Cabinet. Crick (1993) observes:

The only meanings of parliamentary control worth considering, and worth the House spending much of its time on, are those which do not threaten the parliamentary defeat of a government, but which help to keep it responsive to the underlying currents and the more important drifts of public opinion. All others are purely antiquarian shufflings. [...] Control means influence, not direct power; advice, not command; criticism, not obstruction; scrutiny, not initiation; and publicity, not secrecy.

Gonzales (1993) states that simply improving the machinery for scrutiny by introducing more specialized committees will not do much to ensure accountability unless one were to go further and change the formal powers of committees and party behaviour. He argues that the only way to ensure greater accountability is to disband parliament as presently constituted and replace it with 'genuine' representative institutions that could exercise meaningful control over the bureaucratic apparatuses of the state.

 

Gonzales' ( 1993) proposals include the provision of more democratic processes at the local level and, more importantly, the institution of a one party system. The latter would, in his view, serve to eliminate the fruitless and damaging party divisions that render the mechanisms of scrutiny unworkable. He asserts that such a framework presumes "the control of the economy by the vast majority of the people" and offers the only way out of the present dilemma of parliamentary controls. One doubts whether Dr. Gonzales still subscribes to this point of view within the context of contemporary politics in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

While it is conceivable that some of the constraints identified above might be overcome by a commitment to bi-partisanship and consensus, the reality is that political and group competition in small states are invariably fierce and personalized. Those who wish to remain within the narrow elite circle and/or benefit from state patronage are generally disinclined to challenge a potentially punitive officialdom. The problem is exacerbated in plural societies where the government has its centre of gravity in one community and opposition parties in others. The question of loyalty in such cases becomes not merely one of loyalty to party or leader, but also to community. Critics remain silent out of concern that they might be viewed as betrayers of their kin or ethnic group. Such inhibitions affect individuals in the private sector as well as those in the public sector.

 

Societies that are small are also generally characterized by a limited resource base. In order to secure a share of the small resource pie, interest groups feel compelled to forge links with, and become clients of, those who are in positions to allocate valued resources.

 

Clientelism has in fact served to transform the workings of the Westminster parliamentary system in the Anglophone Caribbean. Those who are under the clientelistic umbrella are either suborned to stay mute, at least in public, or do so in the hope of being incorporated or shaded by the political banyan tree. As Edwin Jones (1992:41) notes:

Throughout the Commonwealth Caribbean region the character of competitive politics makes clientelism the norm which itself inhibits effective social mobilization. In this context of weak social mobilization, it is difficult to elicit diligent, demanding, inquisitive or caring approaches on the part of society to the conduct of public business. On the other hand, the competitive milieu has created a degree of social acceptance of unethical public behaviour, acceptance rooted in strong partisan feelings that judge conduct of public officials according to partisan persuasion.

 

Public administration specialists have observed that while smallness has advantages, in that bureaucratic coordination, penetration of the society and conflict resolution may be rendered easier, small scale also constitutes a serious constraint on bureaucratic capability and effectiveness.

There are certain functions which all states in the international system are expected to undertake on behalf of its citizens whose expectations are often inflated by their exposure to the international media and modern consumption patterns. The range of such functions often requires a level of structural differentiation and complexity which is invariably beyond the capacity of small states, given their limited material and human resource base They are often unable to take advantage of either economies of scale or scope. The result is that their administrative systems become overloaded and overwhelmed by the demands placed on them and they consistently under-perform. Ina Barret (1986: 205) addresses this in relation to the micro states of the Eastern Caribbean:

In these small states, the role of government is so multi-faceted and the range of public services that they must, of necessity, provide is so wide as to result in diseconomies of scale. These diseconomies exist in the overhead economic cost of maintaining the administrative system of some programmes and in the use of material and/or human resources. One response to this problem has been the creation of multifunction ministries as departments which place responsibility for the ad1ninistration of several areas of public policy under one minister and sometimes of a chief executive officer. However, this structural approach to solving the problems of scale often creates other problems.

Among the problems Barret observed are that spans of responsibility and control become much too wide. She also notes that the pool of trained human resources in small states is very limited and as such these nation-states lack the "critical mass" needed to act with sustained effectiveness. Responsibility is often devolved upon a few individuals who have too much to do and burn out quickly. Moreover the states are typically unable to recruit persons with the required range of competence, and professionals often have to function as administrators and much more. Similar views were also expressed by Farrugia (1993: 221- 222):

Regardless of size, national systems require basic administrative and managerial organizations to provide efficient services. A State of 100,000 inhabitants, like a country of several million, needs a Ministry of Health to handle the same range of services offered in larger countries. Small states require ministries or departments to deal with personnel management, administration, overseas linkages, buildings, maintenance and so on. The actual number of people working in each branch, section or unit of a small system will be fewer, sometimes far fewer than in larger states. The difference, however, is not proportional to the overall population. The pressures on personnel expected to fulfill a number of roles and responsibilities are proportionately much higher than those in larger countries.

...small states do not have the personnel, nor the finances, to allow the parcelling out of duties [ ...] The multiplicity of roles can have ill-effects on the mental and physical well-being of senior officials in small states. It is extremely demanding to shift rapidly from one task to the next, or to change from one decision-making process to another, or to deal with varying groups of people with assignments that are totally unrelated.

Occupational stress among such individuals is often great. Turnover is high and programmes often lapse or remain on paper with the departure of those who instituted them. As Barret (1986. 207) notes:

small states [...] do not have the capacity to provide the material resources necessary to motivate staff towards high levels of performance. Additionally, they are unable to attract or retain the best qualified staff. Small states are [also] more seriously affected by the brain drain, since the loss of a single trained person may represent the total complement in the field.

 

Smallness also often means that decision makers are within easy reach of those whom policy outputs affect. While this might have advantages in terms of generating reliable feedback, it often makes it difficult for policy makers to approach decision-making free from influence. Nepotism often overrides universalism (Benedict, 1967; Farrugia, 1993; and Ryan, 1989).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Political Sociologist Ivor Crewe argues that there has been a fall in the standards of public life in Britain. This country, which once led Western Europe in the probity of its public life, now ranks in the mid-division, above the Mediterranean countries but below Holland and Scandinavia.