In our participative Malta, citizens not only queue at voting booths, but also take to the streets and use modern communication technology to select, sanction, and pressure the leaders who wield power within government. This political engagement can function in highly nuanced ways even within the same formal institutional context and across the political spectrum, from autocracies to democracies. Political engagement becomes unhealthy when leaders are selected and sanctioned on the basis of their provision of private benefits rather than public goods, giving rise to a range of government failures.
The solutions to these failures lie in fostering healthy political engagement within any institutional context, and not in circumventing or suppressing it. Transparency – citizen access to publicly available information about the actions of those in government and the consequences of these actions – can play a crucial role by nourishing political engagement. The present administration has a proven track record on how best to target transparency initiatives so that the provision of public goods becomes the focus of political contestation.
Too often in the past, government leaders failed to adopt and implement policies that they knew were necessary for sustained economic development. Political constraints can prevent leaders from following sound technical advice, even when leaders have the best of intentions. To make politics work as they should, two main elements are necessary: transparency and citizen engagement. These hold the key to solving government failures by shaping how political markets function.
It is imperative to align political incentives with the interests of society with an eye to making change happen even in the face of political opposition.
For example, in Malta women have reached the highest levels of political office, but what difference – if any – has their rise to the top made? Have they changed the content, tone, or style of political debate? What role has gender played in their triumph and defeat?
Surely enough, we have seen an impact on policies of particular interest to women and their influence on the tenor of legislative debate and the recruitment of other women as party candidates, cabinet ministers, and senior bureaucrats.
To make politics work as they should, two main elements are necessary: transparency and citizen engagement.
Be that as it may, citizen enagement should involve all strata of civil society, with special attention on youth since they are the providers of future leaders. Indeed, the two main political parties in Malta do give huge importance to their youth sections.
But most of the smart people I know want nothing to do with politics. They avoid it like the plague in fact. Is this because they feel that politics is not where anything significant happens? Or because they are too taken up with what they are doing, be it Quantum Physics or Statistical Genomics or whatever? Or because they are too polite to get into arguments with people? Or because they just think that things will work out fine if they let them be.
Whatever the reasons for their quiescence, politics is still being done — just not by them. It is politics that allows special interests to run the country. It is politics that helped the Malta to successfully get out of the Pandemic plight, to keep the economy going steady. It is politics that introduced gay marriages and stem cell research, and other LGBTIQ civil rights – the envy of most other nations in the world. It is politics that have instigated a national discussion on whether to decriminalize abortion, prostitution and other taboo subjects, or whether to legalize the consumption of cannabis for relaxation purposes.
But others, still, do not wish to do politics. They expect other people to do it for them, and grumble when they get it wrong. They feel that their responsibility stops at the ballot box, if they even get that far. After that they are as laissez-faire as they can get away with.
What worries me is that while they might be laissez-faring in future, someone else would be laissez-faring too.
Over the last few years in our country, there has been a shift from top-down governance to more horizontally organised types of government. This new political current includes all the stakeholders of public policy projects, such as public organisations, businesses and citizens, into the decision-making process.
The idea behind citizen engagement is that citizens should have some powers over the decisions that affect their lives. And even though the terms are often used interchangeably, citizen engagement is not entirely the same as citizen participation. Both concepts might seem similar, but they have differing views of the role that citizens should play. The key difference is that citizen engagement requires an active, intentional dialogue between citizens and public decision makers whereas citizen participation can come from citizens only.
For citizen engagement in politics to be successful and reap dividends, four important things are necessary. First, transparency and full information on any given subject are indispensable. These would then provide a good basis for a consulation process, producing enhanced and a healthy dialogue in the process, to be topped up with a meaningful contribution in the legislative process.
Luckily, thanks to current government politics, Malta can reach this desirable milestone.