Over the past few months I have been in conversation with Jeanette Calder, the executive director of the Jamaica Accountability Meter Portal (JAMP) and who are interested in promoting citizen engagement and accountability within the Jamaican government. 

I hold a similar position at the Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM) which is a South African based organization established in 1999 that promotes accountability in the affairs of government, with a primary focus on southern Africa.  We would like to encourage Jamaica to support this new initiative, as we share some of our experience, especially where we have used evidence and findings of the supreme audit institution (SAI) responsible for undertaking independent audits of government.   

Between 1999 and 2004 the PSAM tracked 691 allegations of corruption within South African government agencies. Only 72 of the 691 cases (roughly 10%) were finalised with a finding of guilt or innocence or a decision not to proceed due to insufficient evidence. The total amount of money involved for all 691 cases was R6.9 billion. Of this amount, only R325 million (or 5%) was recovered and/or properly accounted for. These indicators and the PSAM’s growing use of the findings and recommendations made by the Auditor-General of South Africa prompted a revision to the approach the PSAM had used to promote more open and accountable government. 1 

The PSAM realized that in order to more meaningfully address service delivery challenges, maladministration and corruption within government, we had to focus on strengthening the public resource management system, in ways that would make it more socially accountable and responsive to the needs of the public. We needed to better understand and address the underlying causes that allowed corruption to occur and to advocate for systemic improvements to governance systems. By paying attention to and using SAI analysis, findings and recommendations, we have found that we can better solve governance challenges and strengthen citizen engagement so that governments are more responsive and accountable.   

Pictured here is the current head of the South African SAI, Mr Kimi Makwetu and the writer following a public lecture delivered by Mr. Makwetu which the PSAM had arranged in consultation with the SAI.

From 2004, the PSAM began to routinely draw upon the findings of its SAI, which is called the Auditor-General (AG) in South Africa. We would use the SAI’s findings to support more effective engagement with public servants, elected representatives and oversight bodies. In these earlier years, the PSAM set about to educate and encourage journalists and interested parties to better understand and more regularly use SAI results to support their work and engagements. For instance, in 2003 the PSAM issued a press release linking ongoing medical fraud being primarily due to non-implementation of SAI recommendations. The PSAM press release on this issue is available here with an example of media uptake accessible here.  

In 2005, the PSAM drew upon SAI results and data to inform a detailed written submission followed by oral evidence before a commission of inquiry into public sector maladministration. The commission subsequently used the PSAM submission and testimony to cross-examine officials and implicated parties. The PSAM submission is accessible here.  

In 2007 the PSAM drew upon SAI material to call for disciplinary and criminal charges against certain heads of departments of government entities. The PSAM issued a press release entitled “Taking the Auditor-General more seriously” which received widespread coverage and resulted in a national radio debate with the head of the SAI and numerous other radio interviews and television coverage. Not only did these engagements result in action by Parliament against implicated parties but it also promoted public knowledge and debate whilst improving the public’s understanding of the SAI’s vital  role.  

Another example of how the PSAM has used SAI results for advocacy purposes is explained as follows: In August 2007 South African President, Thabo Mbeki released a statement: “Anyone who may have evidence which demonstrates that any minister or deputy minister has acted in dereliction of duty is welcome to forward such evidence to the presidency”.  The PSAM responded with a press release entitled “Here is the evidence” which drew on SAI results and detailed why the then Health Minister should be removed from office by the then President. The press release received widespread media coverage. 

Research during these earlier years by the PSAM, which drew upon SAI results revealed, amongst others:   

  • Repeated failure by members of the executive to act meaningfully on the findings and recommendations of the SAI; 
  • Government plans were often not responding adequately to SAI findings with resources and detailed turnaround plans.
  • Often budgets made to certain line departments were not aligned to tabled plans and did not adequately identify to whom tasks were delegated;
  • Weak financial management controls that created opportunity for maladministration; 
  • Weak or non-existent performance management systems that negatively impacted upon accountability mechanisms.  
  • Many government departments failed to account adequately to parliamentary oversight bodies and especially to the findings of the SAI.

The PSAM has witnessed how the South African SAI has taken steps over the past decade to make its audit reports more easily accessible and better understood by the public. This has included improvements to the SAI’s website and to the visuals, data and the formats used in their reports to make content accessible to a wide audience of potential users. Staff of the SAI also set aside time to engage with the public through radio interviews, panel discussions and other forms of public engagement that promote education and greater understanding and access to the SAI’s work. 

Sustained multi-faceted auditing by the SAI, whose reports are used by civil society to advocate for improved governance, alongside  parliamentary oversight and political leadership, have resulted in certain improvements to the audit outcomes of government departments in South Africa. We have however witnessed that improved audit results are not always sustained as it requires routine consequence management and the retention of public servants and members of the executive that are committed to bringing about improved service delivery. Political instability and conduct that serves private interests at the cost of the public can erode gains made, especially where parliament, the executive and law enforcement agencies  do not investigate or act meaningfully upon findings made by the SAI.  

For these and other reasons, it is critical that civil society, media, parliaments and the public more broadly pay regular attention to the work of the SAI and support calls for corrective action where that office makes adverse findings.  

We look forward to supporting and collaborating with the Jamaica Accountability Meter Portal (JAMP) as they embark upon critical work to support their SAI and citizen engagement in Jamaica. 

Corruption in Jamaica is akin to stage 4 metastatic cancer.

It is widespread, consuming and rotting away the body politic. The situation is dire. Transparency International, United States Department of State, and Jamaica’s National Integrity Action (NIA) as well as a plethora of scholarly studies concede that Jamaica may be at a tipping point where the cancer of corruption results in the collapse of government institutions, instability and the rise in internal violence.

In the quest to find the sources of this cancer and how it can be rooted out, a noted civil society activist asked me recently to consider an overlooked feature of this systemic decay – what she calls the entrenched “bly mentality” in Jamaica’s political culture.

What is the “Bly Mentality”?

In general terms, a “bly” means to get a favour or a chance. In Jamaica, a bly is commonly used to refer to favours on the road such as yielding to other motorists, but a bly also extends to offering the absence of judgement or penalty in situations of wrongdoing as well as the opportunity to prove your worth or ability in circumstances where your performance may be subpar. It is often embodied in familiar refrain in Jamaican parlance such as ‘give ‘em a “bly” or ‘beg you a “bly”.

This expectation that one should get a “bly” especially in cases where they have engaged in serious wrongdoing is pervasive in Jamaica, and wildly problematic. A bly not only fosters a lack of adherence to the rule of law, normalises negative behavioral norms, attitudes and values, and disrupts the genuine and collective desire for a more civil society, but also contributes to a culture of non-accountability and poor governance.

But what accounts for this “bly mentality’? Why do Jamaicans often lobby for a ‘bly’ for fellow citizens rather than demand accountability and the taking of responsibility?

I proffer three reasons below:

The Understanding that Laws and Rules are Not Enforced

One, the Jamaican people get a sense that rules are not rigidly enforced, that the law is not accessible or applicable to all, indeed that some citizens are above the law. A national Governance Survey revealed that 68.8% of Jamaicans believe that the administration of justice favoured the rich while 45% did not agree that crime was being addressed. Indeed, allegations of corruption made against varying suspects – government actors, political party officials, members of the security forces and private sector functionaries – are not usually followed up by prosecution, conviction or punishment. This leads many citizens to believe and expect that the system does not forster accountability and should therefore offer them the same allowances and entitlements it does connected powerful elites.

Promoting adherence to the rule of law is essential to eradicating corruption and building a culture of accountability, justice and rights in Jamaica. Yet the cold hard fact is that the police are only able to make arrests in 44% of homicides annually, and only convict perpetrators in 29% of homicide cases. Further, white collar crimes are rarely prosecuted. This alienates citizens and increases their apathy and disenchantment with the political process and the effectiveness of political institutions. When people doubt the effectiveness of the criminal justice system, for example, they feel more inclined to take matters into their own hand, leading to extreme actions such as vigilantism, which exacerbates the cycle of violence.

Culture of Bargaining Where Rules are Negotiable

Second, the “bly mentality” persists because a culture is fostered around bargaining that the Jamaica people are responding to. The Jamaican people get the sense that the rules are flexible and negotiable. Just as they can go to Coronation Market and haggle over prices or beg a bly in traffic, the Jamaican people have developed an understanding that the rules are negotiable, that things can modified or adjusted – if they know the right people, have the right amount of money, or the right level of charm.

[Drawing] They observe the friendship-based system that obtains in the Jamaican political culture whereby the rules are, at best, inconsistently applied, and worst, changed for others – where public officials are accommodated in clear cases of corruption, where journalists refuse to engage in objective reporting in stories involving their friends; where civil servants are willing to compromise the rules for an extra buck due to the indignity of low wages. As a consequence, Jamaican citizens learn to engage in bargaining practices to ensure that the system can be as cooperative, flexible and open-ended for them.

Problematic Filial and Emotional Bonds

Third, Jamaican citizens tend to demand a bly for fellow citizens with whom they have filial, kinship or other emotional ties. In small communal cultures such as Jamaica where people live and interact closely with each other, strong community bonds and affective ties are maintained among the citizenry. Individuals thus develop strong emotional attachments and sentiments towards others. Those individuals who are well-known or emerge as celebrities in the culture also have conferred on them a great deal of credibility, status, prestige and power in local communities, and in the wider society. These emotional bonds, however, tend to insulate individuals from taking responsibility for actions, whether illegal, immoral or simply inappropriate. The instinctive desire is to “give them a bly”.

Reflects Weakness of Social and Political Institutions

Fourth, although the “bly mentality” is pervasive and pathological, exposing the deep rot at the core of Jamaican civil society, make no mistake, the bly mentality is a response to the nature of political and social institutions. Jamaicans maintain a deep and abiding mistrust of political and social institutions at all levels of the society, and have dangerously low levels of social capital. In a national Governance Survey, 84% of Jamaicans admitted to not trusting each other. Although democratic attitudes were strong and robust, a significant minority say they would support more authoritarian modes of governance. Societies that are economically depressed and that have weak institutions do not foster trust and will find it difficult or impossible to reshape political and social behavior.

So what now?

Jamaicans must, first, demand accountability of their leaders. Accountability ensures that the actions and decisions taken by public officials are subject to oversight, government initiatives meet their stated objectives and are responsive to the needs of the community they are designed to benefit, provide value for money in the provision of public services and evaluate the ongoing effectiveness of public officials. To work, accountability has to involve citizens, mass media and civil society organizations seeking to enforce standards of good performance on officials, lobbying to redress grievances and intervene in the case of inappropriate or inadequate action by government.

The concept of accountability also involves answerability and enforcement. Answerability means the obligation of the government, its agencies and public officials to provide information about their decisions and actions and to justify them to the public and those institutions responsible for ensuring oversight. Enforcement suggests that the public or the institution responsible for accountability can sanction the offending party or remedy the contravening behavior. This is the only pathway to citizen confidence in the system and their own participation in being rid of the bly mentality.

Accountability is the opposite of the bly mentality, and among the cornerstones of good governance. Jamaicans citizens must understand that they cannot have both accountability and a bly. The two are incompatible.

Dr. Hume Johnson is Associate Professor of Public Relations at Roger Williams University, Rhode Island, USA. A political scholar and former broadcast journalist, she is the author of Challenges to Civil Society: Popular Protest and Governance in Jamaica. Her scholarship explores various aspects of governance; political participation and civil society in developing countries; the intersections between politics and the media, and the public relations of nation states. She can be reached at humejohnson@gmail.com

At Ciudadanía Inteligente we are pleased to see Jamaica embrace additional social accountability through the citizen-based initiative JAMP, a citizen initiative using technology to champion change via social accountability. Ciudadanía Inteligente was born in 2009 as a project in Chile: Vota Inteligente (Vote Smart), a project that promotes electoral participation through technology. The project developed into an organisation that seeks to strengthen Latin American democracies in the era of digital technologies. Since 2009, many things have changed. We transited from a project that informed citizens about their candidates, promoting an informed citizenry and vote, to an organisation actively thinking and acting to promote and secure meaningful citizen participation in public decisions. In the last years, we have sought to democratize the rules of the game (ie, advocating for crucial change at the institutional level), empower citizens (ie, training young activists), and opening public management (ie, through participatory policy making at the local level). 

We work designing civic technology, that is, technology for the public good. The community of organisations working in this field has increasingly realised that it is not about building platforms, apps, and technology. It is about asking the right questions: what problem do we actually want to solve? Technology for what? Putting the emphasis on the “civic” side of these kinds of projects: the community of citizens and organisations that come together around and through a platform, whatever form it takes. Usually, this involves other kinds of approaches, such as research, articulation, advocacy, strategic communications, partnerships, facilitation, and methodologies that promote collaborative thinking, knowledge generation, and problem resolution. 

We will soon change our name. From Ciudadano Inteligente (in Spanish, “ciudadano” signals a male citizen) to Ciudadanía Inteligente (a smart “citizenship”). It is not only a small or semantic change, but one that attests to deep changes in our organisation, societies, and in what we understand democracy needs today. In the digital era, technologies have become a double-edged sword. From a utopia of a connected, horizontal, distributed world, where access to information and connections would allow for a more efficient, democratic control of power and decisions, to a dystopian world where few corporations dominate the web, and thus information and knowledge production, concentrating power. We, citizens, have turned into digital services’ consumers and data producers with little control over it, paying a high price for supposedly “free services” (ie, email accounts, social network platforms, browsers) that feed on our collective use, exchange of information, and data/knowledge production.  

Democracy has not been left untouched. The promise of information, transparency, access, openness, and participation has not been fulfilled. On the contrary, citizens have confronted, now with increased evidence, that the economic and political systems and powers are imbricated and mostly at the service of private interests. Public faith and trust have declined. Authoritarian, populist, and extremist voices feed from fear, inequality, anger, and disenchantment. Using the same tools that promised to fulfill the democratic utopia, including technologies, these voices have won space in the political sphere, feeding already polarised debates, promising to secure rights for some, while shrinking the rights of many (vulnerable populations, migrants, women, sexual diversities, ethnic minorities, to name a few). 

Democracies confront crucial challenges today, in the world and in Latin America. We change our name to point to a crucial one: inclusiveness. Democracy needs us all. It needs to secure and guarantee rights for all. It is about expanding rights and civic space. Ciudadanía Inteligente believes that democracies can change for the right reasons and in the right direction: a direction that balances power, and uses it to ensure that not only goods and services are distributed equitably but that ideas and knowledge are distributed equitably too.  

Jamaica’s democracy, like all others, is also in need of strengthening. Citizens play a crucial role. We therefore encourage you to collaborate and engage in this new space, participating in further developing Jamaica’s democracy through the power of collective action, voice, information, and technology. As we say in Ciudadanía Inteligente: “juntxs somos más fuertes” (together we are stronger).  

Cuidadania Inteligente facilitates a 200 women meeting to draft program proposals for Presidential and Parliamentarian 2017 elections in Chile.