In my last post, I mentioned some of the problems that public opinion as a political force can pose when citizens aren't sufficiently informed or just don't care about political issues. I mentioned Walter Lippmann's suggestion to relieve citizens of their participation in political decision making and leave it all up to experts. Another suggestion comes from political scientist John Zaller, who calls for a "burglar alarm journalism." The principle is related to Lippmann's: Zaller proposes to leave the evaluation of political issues to, of all things, the media.
According to The Financial Times, the U.S. government’s Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board plans to launch in October what the FT calls “the most complex government website in history." The Recovery Board, an independent body headed by Chairman Earl Devaney, is tasked to oversee the outflow of the US $787 billion stimulus package to jumpstart the ailing economy, and the state-of the-art website is intended to engage citizens in tracking the use of taxpayer money.
What caught my attention is the premise behind this initiative—that citizens know best what is happening in their own communities. In an effort to rein in waste, fraud, and abuse of stimulus funds, the Recovery Board is putting into practice the principles of accountability and transparency through partnership with citizens. The Board understands that to carry out its mandate successfully, it needs to equip citizens with information so that they can help the Board do its job. As Mr. Devaney explains, “The website will unleash a million citizen IGs [inspectors-general].”
The potential that Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) have to contribute to economic growth in developing countries is undeniable. In terms of what ICT in general and e-government in particular can do specifically to improve governance and accountability, we often hear about their positive impact on government transparency and responsiveness, on government efficiency and effectiveness, and finally, on citizen access to information, services, and opportunities.
Development economists used to argue that elections were THE best instruments of accountability. But events have overtaken that idea and now there are many, including Oxford economist Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion, who are focusing on the limitations of elections: “If you have an uninformed citizenry,” Collier says, “elections just won’t work.”
Once articulated, it makes sense that the sine qua non of good government and economic development is an informed society. And on the face of it, getting critical news and information out to citizens should be an easier and easier task in today’s digitalized, networked and hand-held world. But Collier and others note that most media—across regions and on any platform: print, radio, TV or online—aren’t interested in serving the public good, because “there is no finance to that public-good role. Indeed far from there being finance for it,” says Collier, “there is actually a hostile environment to it….”