From championing the Liberation War in 1971 to achieving LDC graduation in less than 50 years, Bangladesh has embedded a golden footprint of milestones in the global arena. This extends beyond becoming the fastest growing economy in Asia, to winning the United Nations Public Service Award. Overcoming one shortcoming would take this progress further - accountability.
From civil servants, to the legislature, to the judiciary, all government stakeholders must be held accountable to ensure that the state is run fairly and efficiently. This is precisely where institutions of accountability should monitor and evaluate the performance of each body of the government.
One major aspect of ensuring accountable governance is to empower the judicial branch. Let us dive into the primary obstructions faced by this branch of government today.
Efficiency and effectiveness of the judiciary
A key issue with the judiciary is the lack of timely deliverance of justice caused by an overwhelming number of backlogged cases. In the 7th Five Year Plan, the target was to limit the backlog cases to 3.3 million by 2020. In reality, the number of backlog cases had doubled between 2010 and 2019. In the Appellate Division, there are 3,143 cases per judge. That number is 5,500 for High Courts and 1,700 for Lower Courts.
"The judiciary is where we go when there is a need for justice. It is also the institution that would serve to check against both the executive and the legislative. However, the judicial branch in its current state would not be able to carry out either of those functions with much efficacy," said Shahariar Sadat, Director, Academic and Legal Empowerment, Centre for Peace and Justice, Brac University, in a dialogue titled "YPF Road to Reforms: Institutions of Accountability".
Many factors contribute to this situation, one of them being the scarcity of staffing. To put the problem into perspective, Bangladesh has 11 judges per million people. In contrast, India has 19, Australia has 41, England has 51, and Canada has 75 judges per million people. One significant step to tackle this issue has been the empowerment of village courts.
According to the 8th Five Year Plan (8FYP), about 70-80% of the people in developing countries look to semi-formal or informal institutions to settle civil or quasi-criminal litigations. The government has recognised this, and has significantly decentralised judicial authority to village courts.
There were 176,122 cases filed in village courts, whereas 144,125 have been resolved from July 2017 to February 2020.
This data alone could indicate decentralisation is the way to go, considering the existing backlog of cases. Consequently, the government should build additional capacity for village courts and ensure that they are functional across every single union in the country in an inclusive manner. The 8th Five Year Plan emphasises the importance of village courts and lists out an extensive set of policies to ensure that these goals are achieved. So there is ample reason to be hopeful.
With the rising number of complaints from both everyday citizens and veteran parliamentarians about the power of the executive branch of the government, dubbed as the "permanent" government, in contrast to their "temporary" political counterparts, a strong judiciary would serve as the natural check against abuse of executive authority.
Monitoring and evaluation as a tool for accountability
The Civil Service Act of 2018 emphasises the need to evaluate the performance of employees and public institutions through a solid monitoring and evaluation plan. Several tools such as the Annual Performance Agreement (APA) will be crucial to enhancing the government's performance while also making the line ministries more accountable to the cabinet.
A significant achievement of our government in the 7th Five Year Plan period was the successful implementation of the Government Performance Management System through the use of the APA, where the performance of ministries, public offices, and government employees are evaluated at the end of each year.
Implementing this system has created an impact in terms of the organisational performance of various government bodies such as ministries and government offices, even serving to accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. The APA has already been utilised in over 17,000 government offices, being expanded into the Upazilla level; and by doing so, the APA also ensures accountability at the local levels.
To further enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the APA, the government must introduce reforms in the form of tangible incentives for the evaluation process and incentivise the line ministries to achieve the targets agreed on.
The 8th Five Year Plan includes five steps to improve the APA. This starts from the formulation of a policy on government performance management, including incentive mechanisms. APA needs to be extended to all public sector organisations.
To synchronise organisational vision with an employee work plan, employee performance needs to be linked with APA. The online APA Management System (APAMS) needs to improve the preparation, monitoring, reporting, and evaluation of government organisations. Finally, the capacity of the implementing agencies needs to increase substantially.
Parliamentary power in decline?
In the words of Barrister Tania Amir, "The National Parliament now has more business personnel than political personnel". Over time, the Parliament has seen an unfortunate decline of solid political personalities in most conventions. This has led to a compromise of the Parliament's grip across state administration and the executive branch.
The implication of this includes a new challenge to reflect on the politicians' principles and attain a check-and-balance mechanism. This may also impact the synergy across civil administration and the national parliament as a trickle-down effect.
Appointment of the Ombudsman: Parliamentary checks on the executive
With the growing power of the executive branch, it is imperative to install an institution to check this authority - an institution that is accountable to the legislative branch of government. The appointment of the Ombudsman could serve this purpose.
As per Article 77 of the constitution, the Parliament may provide for an office of the Ombudsman with the power to "investigate any action taken by a ministry, public officer or a statutory public authority".
Despite having the provision since the constitution was established in 1972, Bangladesh is yet to appoint an Ombudsman. Bangladesh can learn from the examples of this institution serving as a paragon of accountability within established democratic states such as Sweden and Norway, alongside countries like New Zealand and the UK who follow the common law system.
In Sweden, the Ombudsman can wield an extensive set of jurisdictions and entertain complaints of a citizen against other citizens, an official against an official, a lawyer against a judge, the Bar association against a judge, one judge against another judge, an organisation on behalf of a member, or anyone at all.
In Norway, the Ombudsman is elected by the parliament and can also be voted out by a 2/3rds majority of the parliament. Despite being independent of the parliament, the Ombudsman answers and is held accountable by the parliament.
In the United Kingdom, the "Parliamentary Commissioner" performs the role of the Ombudsman. The role of the Parliamentary Commissioner is to investigate the complaints of maladministration and submit the report to parliament if there is evidence of injustice.
The road to reforms
The 8th Five Year Plan is integral to shaping and achieving the necessary reforms for Bangladesh in the next 50 years. Institutions such as the National Human Rights Commission, Anti Corruption Commission, in unison with civil society, NGOs, and other non-state actors, must play an instrumental role in crafting the future of Bangladesh.
In an expert panel webinar held by Youth Policy Forum under their RtR series on the National Human Rights Commission, Dr Mizanur Rahman, the first Chairman of the Human Rights Commission, reflected upon how the civil society has historically played a pivotal role in empowering the institution, spreading awareness of fundamental human rights, and enhancing the overall accountability of the state.
As we advance, this can be a model to enhance inclusivity in the policy-making process. It is time to rethink the social contract and align the state towards improving and implementing its vision. To that end, we must bring together all stakeholders and engage in dialogues on reform, forging a path towards accountability, good governance, and equality of opportunities.
Syed Tanzil Ahmed is the Head of Advocacy at Youth Policy Forum.
Ahmad Tousif Jami is the Lead of Politics and Governance Team at Youth Policy Forum.
This is the 9th policy column under the Youth Policy Forum (YPF)-TBS partnership. For more policy discussions and analysis, reach us at ypfbd.org.