Saturday, 13 July, 2024

   Public Spheres  


For Good Governance, Empowering Public


The space where the public interact is the ‘public sphere’. The space lies between the family and the government and provides an opportunity for discussion, interaction, criticism, retrospect and expression of feelings and opinions. Human society in any form is a collection of individuals in a certain geographical area, scattered across the world with the growing globalisation and sharing some forms of homogeneity thus giving space for the discussion of issues that are common to multiple individuals.  

Jurgen Habermas, credited with bringing historical transformation to the public sphere, defines it as a virtual or imaginary community that may not exist in a fixed geographical location but is available to discuss or interact on public issues. 

According to the World Bank, the public sphere is the arena where citizens come together, exchange opinions regarding public affairs, discuss, deliberate, and eventually form public opinion. It maintains that the public sphere is at the centre of participatory approaches to democracy, and is a central aspect of good governance. 
Various forms of the public sphere are active in Nepal including the teashops, village gatherings, interest groups and pressure groups, social media groups and professional networks.
Open To All
If any event or occasion is ‘public’, it means that it is open to all, at least for the concerned group, class or citizens of a country. Public spheres are open to all members of the group, society or organisation. However, with the growing awareness about the rights of ethnic people and minorities, professional segregation and group consciousness, some ‘niche’ public groups have emerged in recent decades such as ethnic organisations, professionals’ associations and peer groups like ‘Men’s Room Reloaded’ on Facebook.
Here, one should hold the notion that these spheres are not for all, and they do not necessarily talk or discuss the ‘public’ issues that are concerned to larger masses but rather to a certain group of people. 

There are five elements of public spheres: constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties, free, plural and independent media system not under state control, access to public information, civil society and sites of everyday talk about public affairs – with waning strength in the row. Nepal has a weak civil society that was strong and vocal during King Gyanendra’s regime and April Movement in 2006. Apolitical civil society is almost non-existent now. Likewise, although there is a legal instrument, the Right to Information Act, 2064 BS, public authorities are reluctant to pass out information and institutional decisions. The information seeker, sometimes, has to wait for months to get the desired piece of information. Likewise, there are no sites for everyday talk regarding public affairs. 

Good Governance
While governance means ‘to make and administer the public policy and affairs of’ or ‘to exercise sovereign authority in’, governance is ‘the action or manner of governing a state or organization’. In political science, governance is defined as a process; a process that is undertaken to govern a state, family or organisation through laws, norms, power or language. It entails sound public sector management (efficiency and economy), transparency, legitimacy, justice and respect for human rights and law, says the World Bank. 

According to the UNESCAP, governance means the process of decision-making and the process by which decisions are implemented (or not implemented). If the work is done in a participatory, accountable, transparent and effective way, there can be a situation of good governance. Good governance takes into account societal needs and is responsive to such needs. 

Public spheres are sources of new ideas, information and knowledge even in terms of public service and governance. If there are enhanced mechanisms to pool the ideas of public spheres into policy and decision making, it will certainly pave way for better policy execution and decision making which can have a positive impact on good governance. In the absence of a democratic public sphere, authorities can’t be held accountable for their actions. 

Nepali Scenario
Corruption, weak state institutions, and social, economic and political disparity have weakened the good governance in Nepal. It is further marred by corruption, lengthy process and, in some remote parts of the country, a lack of access to public services. The Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority said that there were not enough interventions or campaigns to raise awareness in people and educate them about good governance. 

Public opinion is a dynamic concept and is transitory. It is short-lived and, generally, people care less about its impacts on policy and governance. There is also a danger that some dominant sectors or individuals might present their opinion as to the ‘public opinion to fulfil their vested interest. In terms of governance in Nepal, it has happened many times. Just take an example of the public construction practises.

As the construction of critical infrastructures like roads, bridges and hydropower was delayed for years and decades, the government sought an opinion from the contractors, engineers and policy experts and amended the ‘Public Procurement Bylaws’ for nine consecutive times. Because every time certain interest or a pressure group, including the contractors and government officials, wanted to maintain some loopholes so that they could make some money at the expense of the state coffer and public service. Since the issues related to contracting out the public structure is a technical matter, the public does not go beyond general protests if the facility is of their immediate concerns, else the matter is not considered important for policy pressure. 

Contrary to this, there were instances where the public sphere had functioned very effectively and forced the government and private companies to create or follow the policy of public interest. Ncell’s Capital Gain Tax (CGT) is an example. It was the media and public that forced the government to take action against the Ncell to pay the CGT after the transfer of the company ownership. The government and the Nepal Telecommunication Authority took no steps against the multilateral telecom company despite multiple suggestions from the Auditor General’s Office. When the issue came to the public and media, the government was forced to collect the tax. Ncell, which was reluctant to pay the tax even after the tax administration’s multiple calls, was forced to pay it after the media and social media flack and public denial to use its SIM cards in case it fails to pay the due taxes. 

Likewise, The Newars in the Kathmandu Valley launched protests against the Guthi Trust Bill and eventually got success in forcing the government to withdraw the bill. The agitation was equally effective on social media as well as on the streets of the valley.

Public spheres at the local level have a direct impact on the local policy formation and improvement in the governance since the administration and representatives are in their direct access. Therefore, it seems that Nepal’s transition to the federal structure can be a boon in terms of good governance in the medium and long term.

During the initial days of the practice of federalism, local governments were desperate to manage resources for the operation and development therefore they levied higher taxes on business activities and charges on public service like issuing recommendation letters or registering vital information. Public opinion played an important role, along with the federal government’s directives and guidance, in correcting the local bodies’ excessive charges and taxes. In this context, it should be equally noted that the business sphere had played an instrumental role in shaping public opinion against local taxes and tax duplication. As it is common in developing countries, the governments, be it central, provincial or local, pay more attention to the demands and opinions of the people of the upper class such as business people. These instances illustrate the contribution of the public sphere in improving the governance situation in the country. 

Mass media channels in the country have played the most important role in terms of improving governance. The media has forced the government to be more transparent and accountable and implement rule of law. Strong evidence of this is the scrapping of the tender with Omni International to procure coronavirus health equipment from China. The government was paying as much as 48 times the price of the materials. Ministers and authorities were defending the procurement decision and the higher payment to get the goods but the media dug out the reality. Therefore, when the media sets an agenda, it can make an impact and sporadic coverage won’t be counted. 

 Opinions or demands generated by certain public spheres may not demand policy address or may not reflect betterment in governance as some of the governance issues are beyond the understanding of the general public. Also, some pressure groups and political interest groups lobby for the interest of a rather small group of people. Especially in a young democracy in a poor country like Nepal where literacy, development and political behaviour are critical, public opinion could be detrimental to good governance at times. We have seen political parties and outfits damaging public service and governance for their political interests in the past. In that sense, it can be said that Nepal’s public sphere now is more like eighteenth-century ‘salons’ in France and ‘table societies’ in Germany where the public sphere was in the control of the aristocrats. 

Another threat to the public sphere comes from the advertising and public relations efforts both at the commercial as well as a political front. Mass media and digital public spheres are filled with advertising and public relations messages trying to draw the attention of people. 

Recent efforts to influence public opinion in terms of development, political activities and corruption in Nepal reflect the same. It seems that some groups, including those which are influential in social media, want to improve some of the political leaders’ images tarnished by corruption. Some of the party’s cadres use ad hominem to disgrace civil society members and the media. Likewise, mass media, as a public sphere, is divided and has become less effective in terms of raising political agenda and governance issues. It has shown less interest in following up on the corruption issues that have the involvement of high political leaders. 

In the age of the internet and social media, people are easily swayed by the information and opinion landing on their timelines. Most of the time their opinions are based on the opinions of other members of the group and media coverage and are an expression of frustration rather than any constructive criticism that could make an impact on governance. 

Empowering the Public
An independent and properly functioning ‘public sphere’ can be an agent of good governance. To achieve this goal,  participation of various classes and sections of society should be ensured in such spheres. Additionally, the right to information for the access, deliberation and flow of facts without any obstruction should be in place. 

Since the public sphere is a normative concept, there are no frameworks to create an effective sphere that can have a positive impact on governance. However, it can be said that since it is participatory, it can enable people to have their say on public issues and empower them with information, knowledge and skills to deliver. Public spheres in Nepal are weak and less effective because people lack the understanding of the public sphere and the effectiveness of organised ‘public opinion. When the governments or public authorities in Nepal consider people as a partner in decision-making and begin to hear their opinion, the public sphere would be strengthened and can contribute to good governance. 

To make the civil servants, public offices and authorities accountable and responsible to the public, there should be an environment, where public sphere(s) thrive and involve in healthy debate and interaction. However, to build such a much-desired sphere that can influence and impact the governance system and policies at the federal, provincial and local level, education is a must, as illiterate citizenry would exhibit less interest in public issues and governance. They worry much about livelihood, health and food rather than involving themselves in public sphere activities. 

(A journalist at The Rising Nepal,
Dhakal writes on economy, business and media issues)