Guest Column

Better impact assessments could keep politicians honest

2017-03-14 11:56

Socio Economic Impact Assessments (SEIAs) should be high on the news agenda. That they are not, undermines the critical role they can and should be playing in keeping politicians honest.

A SEIA is the nearest we will get to a guarantee that there are no underhand dealings, vested interests, hidden agendas or backroom trade-offs driving government policy.

SEIAs are the basis of trust between the people and policy and are vital in the current political climate where politicians are using state resources to line their own pockets. Policy without a bona fide SEIA has no credibility. However, a badly-executed SEIA done in haste merely to tick Cabinet-mandated boxes arouses suspicion.

The latest example of a SEIA from the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS) regarding the recently-published ICT Policy White Paper, appears to have dubious origins and doesn’t even begin to support a policy set to shake up the entire telecommunications industry.

 A Cabinet resolution, administered by the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation, requires that SEIAs be conducted in anticipation of any new policy and be undertaken according to strict guidelines. All policy proposals presented to Cabinet for approval must have a full SEIA and report. That few SEIAs are published and even fewer worth the paper they are written on, speaks volumes.

A properly-formulated SEIA tells the public that policy is sound, that the appropriate deliberation and examination of ideas has happened, that a full cost-benefit analysis has been undertaken, and that the citizens of this country can trust that elected politicians have done their jobs properly with the public interest in mind.

Section 195 of the Constitution requires that the formulation and subsequent implementation of government policy must be “transparent” and provide the public with “timely, accessible and accurate information.” The Constitution, therefore, does not only require public participation for making law, it also directs government to encourage public participation in making policy. SEIAs are the most effective and logical way for government to comply with both.

The Rule of Law, found in section 1(c) of the Constitution, requires policies to be supported by evidence. Policies that are not supported by evidence, or which cannot show that they are supported by evidence, could be said to be unconstitutional. A bona fide SEIA provides that evidence. It is an essential tool of the modern state and variations are adopted globally.

So why then, is our government so reluctant to undertake and publish SEIAs on a regular basis? The newly published SEIA on the ICT Policy White Paper lacks both substance and authenticity, making a sudden after-the-fact appearance on the DTPS website and dismally failing to provide evidence to support the policy.

Allegedly completed in February 2016, it was kept ‘confidential’ until January 2017, three months after the Minister claimed the policy was ‘final.’ This, obviously, fails the transparency test, in that the information was not accessible or timely. A SEIA is supposed to inform public participation. The fact that it was published only after the policy had been decided, renders the SEIA meaningless. This is certainly not public participation in good faith.

Critical information is also missing.

The SEIA does not substantively acknowledge the three main concerns of the industry: The Wireless Open Access Network, cost-based pricing, and the expropriation (or non-renewal) of radio frequency spectrum. These three items were added to the White Paper without public or stakeholder participation.

Instead of objectively considering the costs and potential negative consequences of the new policy, the ICT Policy SEIA simply serves as a motivation for the White Paper. Rather than providing supporting evidence, it for the most part disregards the serious unintended consequences likely to result.

Public participation is democracy in action in between formal elections. It legitimises government policies as it draws upon the knowledge and experience of the public and interested stakeholders who will have to live under those policies and subsequent legislation.  In the ICT case, the public voice has been effectively silenced.

- The Free Market Foundation is an independent, non-profit, policy organisation that promotes sound economic policies and the principles of good law.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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