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'.
Is it true that the news media - when free, plural and independent - promote effective, responsive and accountable governance? Working with Professor Pippa Norris of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, CommGAP has produced a major study making the case for Yes as rigorously as we can. That study is now being prepared for the printers, and should be available soon. Yet there are times when I think; why do we need to go to great lengths to make what should be an obvious point?
"Only fools, pure theorists, or apprentices fail to take public opinion into account."
- Jacques Necker (1792), Finance Minister to Louis XVI
Photo credit: Flickr user James Sarmiento
On my way home from work last Friday, I chanced upon a fascinating interview on C-SPAN radio on government transparency, access to public information, and citizen participation at the U.S. Federal level. New York Law School Professor Beth Noveck, currently serving as White House deputy chief technology officer, was talking about the open government initiative. One of its key components is a site (whitehouse.gov/open) dedicated to Web 2.0-based transparency, participation, and collaboration efforts of the U.S. Federal Government. The site links to online resources where citizens can access public information (transparency) and provide input into the policymaking process (participation). The goal is not just consulting citizens on public matters, said Noveck, but a structured process through which they can help generate actual policy options. Other links bring users to sites that seek specialist input on military science, education, small businesses, and technology applications in international development (collaboration).
It is important not to let a scandal go to waste. If you follow world politics, then you must know about the recent events in Great Britain. According to the Financial Times, 'For the past two weeks, Britain has been in a state of stupefied anger at the ingenious ways in which elected politicians have used their expenses system to milk the taxpayer'. As a result, says the same report, 'public fury over scandalous expenses claims has pushed lawmakers, in fear of losing their jobs and their reputations, towards constitutional reform'. (Financial Times, May 23/May 24 2009.)
Now, I am a student of the constitutional thought of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the British utilitarian philosopher and jurist. Thus, as I have followed the scandal Bentham's words have been ringing in my ears. For, one of the great battles of Bentham's long life was the reform of parliament. But Bentham was a universalist. He was confident that his ideas for constructing a form of government that would provide 'securities against misrule' were universally applicable. Bentham believed that government should be as open and as transparent as possible. This is his Panopticon principle, all round transparency with very few exceptions. Note that a request under the Freedom of Information Act got the scandal under discussion going.
That all authority in the last analysis rests on opinion is never more forcefully demonstrated than when, suddenly and unexpectedly, a universal refusal to obey initiates what then turns into a revolution. To be sure, this moment – perhaps the most dramatic moment in history – opens the doors wide to demagogues of all sorts and colours, but what else does even revolutionary demagogy testify if not to the necessity of all regimes, old and new, ‘to rest on opinion’? Unlike human reason, human power is not only ‘timid and cautious when left alone’, it is simply non-existent unless it can rely on others; the most powerful king and the least scrupulous of all tyrants are helpless if no one obeys them, that is, supports them through obedience; for, in politics, obedience and support are the same.
- Hannah Arendt (1963) On Revolution (p. 228)
What you are reading here is a technical blog. In the World Bank they are (pretentiously?) known as 'Expert Blogs'. I post these reflections once a week, for instance, and, as you would expect, I tend to think about them before I do so. But, as we all know, all over the world these days are bloggers of a very different kind. They blog not only everyday but several times a day.
- Niccolo Machiavelli (1532), The Prince