The New York Times recently published an article about the experience of Indonesia’s anti-corruption commission, whose existence is being threatened precisely because it is so very good at doing its job of fighting corruption. Sound like a conundrum? Hardly.
"Public opinion represents a consensus, which emerges over time, from all the expressed views that cluster around an issue in debate, and that this consensus exercises power."
-- Cutlip, S M, Center, A H and Broom, G M (1994) Effective Public Relations, Prentice-Hall International Inc, 7th edn.
Many of us become more convinced in our views on any given topic by bouncing them off of our sounding boards, whose worldview often mirrors our own. Feeling validated through these interactions, we march on with our perspectives unaltered. Troublingly, if we allow ourselves to interact only with our like-minded peers, these interactions can and do lead to viewpoints that are fixed, sometimes to the dismissal of all other alternative perspectives. This is the topic of Cass Sunstein’s article, “To Become An Extremist, Hang Around With People You Agree With.”
Transparency International’s 2009 Global Corruption Barometer, published last month, details the results of an opinion survey on the public’s perceptions and experiences of corruption and bribery around the world. The report contains many interesting findings, but the ones I found particularly notable were the following:
"The four major collective concepts commonly invoked in public opinion research - the general public, the electorate, the attentive public, and the elite or active public - correspond roughly to a continuum from mass to public. ... each of these four collectives - whether formally considered a public or not - can play a significant role in the formation of public opinion. It is in this sense that the search for the public is likely to be in vain. ... It is in the interaction among these groups – as they form and change over time – that answers are likely to be found concerning the collective formation and impact of public opinion."
in Public Opinion (1992)
The outbreaks of political turbulence around the world have prompted me to re-visit Edmund Burke's masterpiece, Reflections on the Revolution in France ( 1790). In the work, Burke attacks the French Revolution. I remember that when I had to write a term paper about the work in a class on the History of Political Thought in graduate school, I fully expected to hate the Reflections and to debunk it. But it amazed me, and impressed me. First, its eloquence is overpowering. Even now as I leaf through my old copy, the grandeur of the language still moves the spirit. Second, you cannot but be impressed by the prophetic power of Burke's analysis of the French Revolution. For he wrote the Reflections in the early days of the Revolution, yet he was able to correctly predict its path - the deepening violence, the collapse into dictatorship. Now, as a school-boy fan of the French Revolution that got my attention.
One of the dilemmas voiced by anti-corruption agencies at the UNODC-CommGAP organized learning event on the role of communication in anti-corruption efforts last November was the challenge of working with the media. On the one hand, anti-corruption agencies understood the importance of media relations. On the other, many of them had had unpleasant experiences with journalists, leaving them frustrated and suspicious of the media profession as a whole.
The on-going controversy around the presidential election result in Iran raises an important curiosity. It is clear at the present moment that the official results have defied expectations and dashed hopes for many. From the standpoint of political accountability, there are at least two important questions that arise. First, where do these expectations and hopes come from? Perceptions that the election was "stolen" must be based in some sense of a range of plausible outcomes, and the declared 63% to 34% split clearly fell out of this range for Moussavi supporters and comfortably within this range for Ahmadinejad supporters. The problem of conflicting pre-election expectations is an old one, rooted in what social scientists often call "homophily." Where we stand is often determined by where we sit, and we tend to sit in deeply embedded and entrenched social information networks amongst others who are very much like us in body, mind, and spirit. Those in the Ahmadinejad camp most likely set their expectations in the company of other Ahmadinejad supporters and those in the Moussavi camp most likely set their expectations in the company of fellows who championed Moussavi's cause.
Last week and this, the Institute for Democracy in Africa (IDASA) piloted the new World Bank Institute's (WBI) new Core Learning Program "Introduction to Social Accountability" near Johannesburg, South Africa. CommGAP was invited to present a module on "Communication and Strategies for Constructive Engagement" - introducing our core concepts and messages on mobilizing public opinion to create genuine demand for social accountability. Here's a comment from the evaluations of our module: "The mobilization of public opinion is vital for social accountability. I have to admit that I was not aware of the importance of public opinion for social accountability before this course!"
I have just read a fascinating paper published by the Institute of Development Studies in the UK and written by Naomi Hossain. It is titled 'Rude Accountability in the Unreformed State: Informal Pressures on Frontline Bureaucrats in Bangladesh' [IDS Working Paper Volume 2009 Number 319]. The paper describes and analyzes what happens when poor peasants in Bangladesh are being poorly served by frontline service providers like doctors and teachers in an environment where the institutional accountability mechanisms do not work. So, what do these poor peasants do? They get angry and they show it. They speak rudely to these doctors and teachers who normally expect deference. They embarrass them. They get local newspapers to name and shame them.They even engage in acts of violence like vandalism. And their reactions often produces results, particularly the media reports. This is what Hossain calls 'rude accountability'.