Open government

Our government wishes to be open and transparent. We have seen some examples of this given by Public Health Minister Emil Lee and only last week, Education Minister Silveria Jacobs confirmed that she is on the same page – actually, that the whole government is on the same page.

Well, let’s test those statements against an initiative that came up in the Netherlands and that seems to fit St. Maarten like a glove. Leo Bouwmeester, a member of parliament for the Labor Party (PvdA) came up with the initiative: the Second Chamber has to become more resilient versus the influence of lobbyists.

In St. Maarten, people don’t lobby, they plonk their demands on the desk of their favorite minister. In many cases, this is of course the minister of Vromi who gets to deal with infrastructure projects and with all kinds of construction projects. Think Fixed Based Operations facility at the airport, think expansion Pointe Blanche prison, think waste-to-energy plant on Pond Island. And so on, the list is endless.

That companies, citizens and organizations constantly attempt to influence government policy is part of democracy, Bouwmeester acknowledges. “Lobbyist bring interests to politicians. But we have to be more open about who stops by to talk and how we deal with these interests.”

Good point. Bouwmeester, together with fellow-faction member Astrid Oosenbrug, presents an initiative to make lobby-influence more transparent. They have also put together a working group tasked with turning proposals into regulations. Members of five factions in parliament have promised to help.

In the spring, Bouwmeester and Oosenbrug already published a series of transparency proposals on the website of their party. They called on the public to think along.

One of their proposals is to make the agendas of ministers public. A second idea is a lobby paragraph in legislation in which a ministry shows which interests have been addressed and how they have been weighed.

A new idea is a cool down period for ministers and parliamentarians. Former politicians are not allowed to start working in the sector for which they were responsible during their political career. Political parties also ought to publish lobby-influence in their election programs.

The proposal is a first step to regulate lobbyism. Bouwmeester says that this is sorely needed. As a beginning member of parliament, she was amazed by the number of lobbyists that came knocking at her door.

At ministries the traffic is even heavier, Bouwmeester says, even though the departments are more difficult to access for outsiders. Bouwmeester says that it is about making visible who influences the context of legislation. “We have no idea who is thinking along in the earliest stages. Members of parliament cannot see who determines the context of legislation and citizens are only able to bring about marginal changes.”

That process must become public, Bouwmeester says.

Arco Timmermans, a professor in public affairs considers Buwmeester’s initiative an important first step. “Currently the media are the only ones that control the lobby. That is not enough. Politicians who think that it is not necessary to regulate this are out of touch. Lobbyists often say that what matters is that a politicians is able to account for his decision afterwards. But it is of course about the front end: does everyone have equal access?”

Wim Voermans, professor constitutional law in Leiden, is enthusiast. “Due to the internet citizens are increasingly used to participate. The closeness of our political culture contrasts sharply with it.”

You do not compensate inequality with transparency, Voermans adds. “A company like shell has more money to research the consequences of legislation than a random citizen. What matters is that all parties must be able to take part in the discussion on equal footing.”

The professional association of lobbyists is also positive about the initiative. “We want to cooperate with these plans in a constructive manner,” chairman Jaap Jelle Feenstra says, “If something goes wrong with the promotion of interests, it will affect our profession. We also have an interest in openness. We are ready to help bringing these proposals forward. After all, we are lobbyists.”

It would of course not benefit lobbyists to show that they are fierce opponents of openness. That would only cast a shadow of doubt over their real intentions. It is however typical that the lobbyist-association almost throws itself on the idea. It is a clear example of what Bouwmeester and Oosenbrug want to fight: the early involvement of lobbyists in what ought to be a transparent public debate about the architecture of new legislation.

Now we’d like to hear how our open government intends to apply these ideas to the local situation.

Source: Today SXM Open government