THE STATE OF THE NATION ADDRESS AS A FUNCTIONAL POLICY TOOL
Not a Ritualistic Decoration
There are two important moments in most parliamentary and presidential democracies which are of special importance to groups formed around special interests. These are presentations of national budgets to parliaments and the presentation also of the State of the Nation Address also to parliaments and the public at large. The influence of the Anglo-American democratic culture across the world has ensured the exportation and adaptation of these democratic practices that reflect the values of transparency and accountability to developing countries. For citizens and interest groups they are able to tell from such presentation whether their interests are being addressed or not, however they are unable to get this information from general presentations made in formats that make little room for specifics.
Regarding the State of the Nation Address what matters most is not its observance but its functionality. Saul Alinsky whilst probing into the functionality of Christian doctrines among some Christians observed the doctrines as being outside of the experience of organized religion. He gave the example of how a man who wanted to emulate the example of St. Francis of Asisi ended up in a mental facility. He withdrew his life savings and went about distributing the money in five dollar bills to the poor. He was arrested by Christian police officers, declared insane by a Christian psychiatrist and condemned to a mental facility by a Christian judge. For Alinsky, Church attendance was therefore mainly a ritualistic decoration far less demanding than asking the flock to live according to Christian doctrines. The point being squeezed out of this long narration in relation to the State of the Nation Address is that about ritualistic decorations which raises important questions not only about the functionality of religious doctrines but also about the functionality of particular policy tools of governance such as the state of the State of the Nation’s address in achieving concretely their end objectives.
State of the Nation Address and the Question of Functionality
The functionality of a tool is in how it is able to accomplish the work it is meant for. A knife that is unable to cut is therefore not a functional tool. The essence of the State of the Nation’s address is to achieve transparency and accountability in public resource management. The extent to which these outcomes are being met or not then become significant indicators of the functionality of the State of the Nation’s Address as a transparency and accountability tool. Tools are not wished or hoped to be functional they are indeed designed to be functional which makes the design or frame of the tool very important in realizing its essence. The knife for instance is designed to have a sharp blade which helps in achieving its essence. Supposing the design of a knife leaves out the sharp side, the essence of the knife will not be realized meaning this has to be corrected and the knife given a sharp blade for it to be functional. However if despite this omission in design, the knife is continually used without any results the knife then no longer serves its essence and becomes ritualistic décor.
With this understanding, the design and framework of the presentation of the State of the Nation Address becomes very important in achieving the end objectives of greater transparency and accountability in governance and public resource management. What we have often seen in previous State of the Nation Addresses do not provide any confidence that the essence of the state of the address is being realized.
Two factors in relation to the address have contributed to this situation. First is the format of the reporting and second is the lack of follow-ups between current and previous addresses. Addressing these two issues will be important contributions to improving the frame and functionality of the State of the Nation Address.
Format of Address
A disturbing feature of past addresses concerns the presentation format. Section 34 (2) of the 1992 constitution indicates clear and specific issue areas that the State of the Nation Address is suppose to report on. These includes; “the realization of basic human rights, a healthy economy, the right to work, the right to good healthcare and the right to education”. The President is obliged to report on “steps taken to ensure the realization of these policy objectives”.
The President has no option but a duty to conform to this constitutional requirement. The report that is therefore expected under the various policy objectives are reports that reflect targets, steps taken towards targets, results and remedial actions. There is the need for a format that is able to capture these essentials and which makes it able and easier for citizens to keep track on the performance of Governments on these policy objectives. The current format hardly makes this possible.
It is understood that the president would not be able to capture everything within the short period he has to address parliament. Nonetheless, one way of going around this issue would be to present two texts to parliament the speech and a much more detailed and extensive text of specifics that parliamentarians and citizens could peruse later.
Linked to the above factor is also the issue of lack of follow-ups in subsequent reports that addresses promises and assurances provided in relation to remedial actions in previous State of the Nation Addresses. The format should have a section which allows parliamentarians and citizens in the detailed document to track progress of outstanding work.
It is important to work at resolving these issues in order to avoid maintaining the state of the nation address as a constitutional décor but rather a functional policy tool of state that promotes transparency and accountability through linkage of policy targets, their progress and results and which impacts positively on the social and economic lives of all citizens.
By: Leonard Shang-Quartey
The writer is a Policy Analyst with the Integrated Social Development Center (ISODEC)
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