Reform in Jordan has always been an uneasy path. It is, in most cases, a ludicrous dance consisting of one step forward and three steps backwards, often times in completely unrelated fields. We improve in one area, and suddenly we seem to be doing a lot worse in a whole other area. Even the word reform does not seem to surface until there is a need for it – until there is a call for it. In other words, when things get bad. It is invoked by the government in an effort to put the masses at ease, and it is invoked by the masses to put the government on edge. The former places it in a long-run context, as in “this will take time”, while the latter frames it almost always in a short-run context, as in “we need it now”.
Although the National Agenda proved to be a document that has all but faded from public memory, the country seems to be lost as to what steps to be taken, and in what order. On a macro level, nearly everything needs to be reformed; from the education system to the political system to economic policy. However, on a micro level, there is need to pinpoint what is achievable today and what is achievable tomorrow. There is a need to identify the first steps, and in this, transparency seems to have floated to the top of priorities.
In my opinion, transparency has always been the first step. It is the one policy that has the ability to change the status quo without an enormous effort on the government’s part, especially in a time where reforms generally cost a great deal of money, which we have little of. Transparency, for me, means openness. Transparency means open communications, instead of hindered information. Transparency means public debate, instead of behind-closed-door key decisions. Transparency means ensuring independent governmental bodies retain their independence, instead of having questionable credibility, such as that of the justice system. Transparency means a giant spotlight on corruption in all its forms, as opposed to sweeping it under the rug or attempting to address it quietly. Transparency means informing the public as a prerequisite, as opposed to an afterthought. Transparency means a real environment of accountability, as opposed to haphazard attempts of it. Transparency means providing statistical realities; numbers that say, this is who we are.
It is always interesting to note how the government reacts so hesitantly when it comes to transparency, as if it is oblivious to the age of information it exists in by default. The state in general has always had terrible communication instincts, and that is something it shares with other Arab governments. It fails to realize that in the information age, it is nearly impossible to control what people know anymore. The information is either out there or destined to be one way or another. Its fate is unpredictable and as impossible to plan for as Wikileaks. There is simply no way the state will be able to control the flow of information in the coming few years as it becomes easier for information to be exposed, and trickle down to the average citizen. It is not a matter of how anymore, but a matter of when. This inevitability is largely to blame for many of the communication screw ups that have occurred over the past few years, and will be the source of much angst in the near future.
What the state realizes is that while the first rule of public communication strategies has always been to control the story by releasing the information first. If the perception is that you are hiding something, then you’ve already lost the game. Recently, the government has sought to erode the credibility of the opposition by demanding it provide statistical data to back up its claims that we are worse off today. This is a fair request under ordinary circumstances but the government has failed to realize that it is addressing Jordanians in a Jordanian context; a context in which most of us have been shut off from access to such data, largely controlled by the government itself, and thus we are a people who care little for evidence. Accusations and perceptions will do. This is the environment we live in, and it is an environment created and supported by the system. It is a result of their own creation. With this in mind, the government will have a tough time eroding any credibility from an opposition that builds its case on perceptions rather than data.
The equation is rather simple. Data yields information, information yields knowledge and knowledge is power. In the absence of the aforementioned we are left in a void, free to fill it with our own perceptions, which, with time, become our reality. What we believe to be true becomes the sole truth, because there are no facts to counter it. The Jordanian state, like all other Arab nations, has been content when it comes to nurturing a population that is in the dark, a darkness it controls simply becomes it possesses the channels of information. But today, those channels are being decentralized, and the iron grip it once retained is quickly fading. The people, long left stumbling in the darkness, now control the light switch. The sooner the state realizes this, the better off it will be.
And that is perhaps the worst part about transparency; the failure of the government to see what benefit it can derive from it, when in fact it has just as much to gain from it as the people do. Not only does it save money but it simply put, makes life easier. From a government perspective, being the first to release information means being able to “control” the story – and use the word “control” here as lightly as one can in an age when there is little of it. As opposed to today where the government is constantly on the defensive because it has lost complete control over the flow of information, and subsequently, the story of the day. Transparency adds a dose of credibility to any government, and is the stuff trust is made of; something that has long been lacking between the people and the government.
When it comes to expenditure, people know little of where their money goes. We know next to nothing about the earnings of various officials, including the monarch. Again, the void is filled with speculation, and this is something that is destined to increase rapidly in the near future, and has serious consequences in an environment where there is economic discontent and the poor are feeling poorer. The government has always been quick to blame the media or even the people for their speculations, but filling that void with nothing but speculation has always been our forte in the absence of real information and data. Access to information in Jordan is defined by having to jump through a million hoops to get information which is public, and even that kind of information is limited.
But until the state decides to embrace transparency and establish it as a first step towards serious reform in Jordan, one can only utter these five words with some relief:
Thank God for the Internet.