As part of our Global Integrity Dialogue series, Nathaniel and I traveled to Tonga to convene a discussion around the possibilities for anti-corruption and transparency reforms in the country. The workshop drew on the insight of senior government officials, the donor community, journalists, and other local stakeholders to identify key priorities for increasing transparency and accountability in Tonga.
Global Integrity Dialogues provide the opportunity for a diverse group of participants to use the Global Integrity Report as a toolkit for informing the policy reform agenda and to build common ground. The range of attendees in Nuku’alofa was one of the best we’ve seen at a Dialogue workshop. Participants included the founding editor of Tongan news outlet Matongi Tonga, the national Ombudsman, governance experts from AusAID and NZAid, the Head of Tonga Customs, and district-level government representatives. (You can find a complete list of participants on the Commons wiki page.)
The recent ferry accident off Tonga’s outer islands, which claimed more than 90 lives, loomed large over the discussion. Tongans’ frustration with their government’s inability to provide concrete answers as to the sunken ship’s sea worthiness certification, more than a week after the accident, was apparent. As a result, there was a call among participants for establishing a formal access to information regime in Tonga. Participants believed that if they had the legal right to demand access to the ship’s paper trail, explanations as to the cause of the accident would be more forthcoming from government.
Here’s the full list of mutually-agreed upon (and nonbinding) next-steps for reform that came out of the day-long discussion:
1.Cultural and religious factors need to be prominently factored into any governance and transparency reform efforts in Tonga. Tonga’s small size, close-knit community, and strong religious traditions call for a nuanced approach to governance reforms. That approach should take into account societal dynamics when seeking to implement Western “best practices.” While not wanting to use “culture” as an excuse to water down important accountability and transparency reforms in the country, participants felt that any reform efforts would stand a better chance of taking root should they be designed with Tonga’s cultural and religious realities in mind. This could significantly shape the design and implementation of reforms that touch on resource allocation (including the budget and procurement processes as well as decentralization of government service delivery in the outer islands), which have historically been prone to a habit of “bringing home the goods” to ones family and extended kinship network. On the other hand, participants argued that Tonga’s small size and unique cultural history could potentially be harnessed to positively enhance governance reform efforts by emphasizing widely held religious values such as integrity and morality.
2.Governance reform efforts in the short- and medium-term should be framed within the ongoing Constitutional and Electoral Reform process, whenever possible. Despite what will undoubtedly be controversial and contested recommendations emerging from the Constitutional and Electoral Reform Commission in 2010, participants felt that key governance reforms stood a better chance of being implemented were they included as part of the Commission’s recommendations. Despite the anticipated controversy, the Commission carries significant political weight and authority, and an opportunity to seed its recommendations with a handful of accountability and transparency reforms could be a helpful tactic for raising such reforms’ profile with the public and lending gravitas to their importance.
3.In the context of implementing key anti-corruption and accountability reforms, human resource constraints are an even greater challenge than financial resource constraints. While participants all agreed that greater financial resources could only help the governance reform agenda in Tonga, participants were nearly unanimous in citing the lack of qualified human resources, particularly within key government agencies, as a major long-term impediment to reform. For example, the goal of increasing the effectiveness of key public sector watchdog institutions (such as the ombudsman, the auditor general, and a future Public Accounts Committee within Parliament) is unlikely to be fulfilled absent more qualified staff and senior leadership. In the same vein, several participants argued for making human resource management reform (including the introduction of performance-based management) across the Tongan public sector a priority as a means to professionalize and rationalize the public service.
4.Public financial management remains a significant weakness in the Tongan anti-corruption framework, and must be addressed as a priority. Global Integrity’s data for Tonga highlighted troubling weaknesses across the entire public financial management value chain in the country, including a closed and non-transparent budget formulation process; weak or non-existent procurement regulations and safeguards; and poor oversight of the budget and procurement decisions by the legislature, which continues to lack a Public Accounts Committee. Participants hoped that Parliament would soon pass the Procurement Act, which could be one important step to shoring up Tonga’s public financial management system.
5.Despite Tonga’s small size, participants felt the increasing citizen access to government information should be a priority. Tonga lacks a formal access to information law or mechanism, and despite the fact that citizens (and watchdogs such as journalists and civil society groups) can often obtain government information through informal relationships, participants argued that establishing a guaranteed right to government information could be a powerful reform. The challenge in Tonga would be one of effectively implementing such a right (were it passed), given the resource constraints discussed above. Nonetheless, participants felt that pushing through a right to information law could be an important complement to any other governance and transparency reform efforts.
For more reflections on the Global Integrity Dialogue: Tonga, take a look at Matangi Tonga’s news report and our previous Notes from the Road. You can also find the full Conclusions and Recommendations document on the Commons wiki page.
— Norah Mallaney and Nathaniel Heller
— Image: Nathaniel Heller