Jamaica is not alone in being a country governed by more lack of transparency than is good for democratic purposes. Its problem, and one that faces many governments that are similar, is that the world is much quicker now to pounce on such opaqueness and take it to the places that the government cannot control. In years gone by, when communication was slower and essentially physical, it was seemingly less harmful for bad stories about government to reach the eyes and ears of the public. Governments might have had control over news organs and much of the available media. Nowadays, such controls are long gone, with the Internet providing speed and spread of information  much wider than the reach of government.

For that reason alone, it really pays government and public agencies to be ‘in front’ of stories, meaning that the bad news should not come as a surprise and the responses to them in terms of corrective action–if sincere–should be swift, clear and effective. That, however, if rarely the case. The government gets caught out. It reacts defensively. People add to their stock of distrust and government’s credibility takes a hit. Over time, the accumulation of that may weigh on the government and they get hammered at elections. The control of the political machinery may be such, however, that when the government loses credibility, it can still muster enough support to keep power. Now, I would be a naive little boy if I believed that such support was freely given in all cases and that no inducements–material, financial or otherwise–were involved.

Government may be happy to preside over shoddy public services because they tend to help maintain power by being inefficient and not much help in exposing government misdeeds because their records are poor and the cross-checks that could be provided are often missing. You see lots of evidence of this when certain activities occur that could embarrass the government, for instance, files are missing or get lost in the process.

Bad news is always there to seep out. Nowadays, however, it starts flowing like sewerage to the sea, and gets picked up and transferred and changed by anyone who has access to the Internet. Government spin cannot turn fast enough to deal with this.

Jamaica is now in one of those waves. Yesterday, news came out from an access of information request, about use of cell phones by ministers. It showed seeming abuse, in that huge bills were being racked up. One junior minister, Foreign Affairs State Minister Arnaldo Brown’s bill for the year was the highest, with a J$1.09m cell phone bill for the twelve months. For June this year alone, his cell phone was J$410,000. That’s so big compared to most people’s bills as to be unimaginable. All of this during a time when the country is being asked to make economic and financial sacrifices. One rule for the people and another for the privileged politician? Luckily, the said minister is travelling, but he’s due for grilling when he comes back.

The secret is for the government to be on top of these matters in the way that the public expects. Of course, one can imagine that official and private use are mingled, and people may find that the government has a system whereby only verified official calls are paid by public funds. I’ve been in a bureaucracy like that, and calls to non-governmental agencies were deemed private and on my dime. Of course, I could wriggle and cite calls say to contacts in private business, e.g. journalists, or academics, etc. But, it was a regime that meant one took care because scrutiny was real and the cost for misuse was real.

Do we have something like that in Jamaica? I suspect not, but would be happy to be proved wrong.

We tend to have politicians who like to act as if they are above most people and forget who foots the bill. I would love to see that stop and have no problem is curbing excesses in ways that make the pain for abusing very real. Pay your way, not live high on the hog.

Jamaica is not alone, as I said. Just a few months ago, a Canadian provincial deputy premier was hauled over the coals for racking up a C$20,000 phone bill, while on vacation: he said it was due to a potentially violent family dispute faced by a fellow cabinet minister.

How will our officials deal with the disclosure? Fess up and come clean on the true uses? Bluster? Beg for pardon? None of the above?