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)
One of the most difficult barriers in the field of communication and development is the lack of quantitative empirical evidence that demonstrates the effect of communication on development. When we argue that communication is central to development and increases development effectiveness, economists often raise an eyebrow and ask "Where's the data?" It's a legitimate question. And it's a question we don't have an answer to - yet.
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
The importance of framing policy issues has made repeat performances on this blog. As Kathleen Hall Jamieson simply puts it, frames influence the ways in which we think about things, emphasizing some aspects of a phenomenon and deemphasizing others. Recently in The New York Times, John Broder wrote about the framing of environmental issues in an article entitled “Seeking to Save the Planet, With a Thesuarus.” Broder's piece reports on a document that was accidentally sent to media organizations by EcoAmerica, an organization that has been conducting public opinion research on framing and reframing of environmental issues to build public support for policy change. Here are some findings, as reported by Broder:
There are a lot of highly interesting talks and events on governance at the World Bank these days, often we discuss them here in our blog. The other week we had a guest from the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF), Roland Rich, who is the Fund's Executive Head. He gave a remarkable presentation, full of memorable propositions that would all merit a blog post or two. From "We're all footnotes to Plato" to "An idea is not responsible for the people who support it" there was a lot of food for thought. For this post, I'll pick only one of his many inspiring ideas: the role of social capital in development.
Technocracies change very slowly, if at all. Why? I have come to believe that people are both enabled and imprisoned by the frameworks and paradigms of their technical disciplines, the subjects in which they have earned advanced degrees from top universities. It is how they tend to see the world. It is also how they approach problems in international development.
Let's take an example. Suppose you are thinking through how to improve the governance of the transport sector in Gugu Republic. Engineers will see an engineering challenge. Economists will see markets and incentive systems. Political scientists will look for the underlying 'rules of the game', the politics of why the sector does not function the way it should. Social development specialists will worry about affected 'communities'. And communication specialists? They want to think about the attitudes, opinions and behaviors of key stakeholders. So, you ask each of these specialists: How do we fix the problem? The tendency is for each one to apply the frameworks and paradigms of the academic discipline he or she has emerged from. This is where power comes in. If one of these professional groups is in power in a particular development institution or sector then the temptation is to impose the frameworks and paradigms of that discipline.
"A new situation has arisen throughout the world, created by the spread of literacy among the people and the miraculous improvement of the means of communication. Always the opinions of relatively small publics have been a prime force in political life, but now, for the first time in history, we are confronted nearly everywhere by mass opinion as the final terminant of political, and economic, action."
Our good friend Amartya Sen checks-in recently with an essay in the New York Review of Books (March 26, which I am just getting to). Our good friend, because as a leading economist he is also a serious and long standing student of development challenges given his work on poverty, income distribution, famine, and so on. The occasion of this particular NYRB essay is the ongoing financial crisis. In it, he addresses recent calls for a “new economics,” as exemplified in the "New World, New Capitalism" symposium held in Paris in January, hosted by Nicolas Sarkozy and Tony Blair. The idea, as Blair proposed, is to call for a new financial order based on “values other than the maximum short-term profit.”
Regarding my recent post on 'The Collective Action Problem: The Case of America's Uninsured' here is a little nugget from William A. Galston:
While I have stressed the significance of changes in structures of power and interests in the United States, there is as well an enduring political reality stressed by analysts from Machiavelli to Dahl: the forces of the status quo enjoy a systemic advantage over the forces of change. Those who benefit from the status quo know who they are, can calculate what they have to lose, and have strong incentives to organize to protect themselves against losses. By contrast, the beneficiaries of broad change are a diffuse group. They can only project or imagine (not experience) the impact of the proposed change on their lives, and many will be disposed to doubt that the promised benefits will reach them at all. For these reasons, among others, they are harder to organize than are those who seek to protect what they already have. (The Oxford Handbook of Public Policy, p. 554)
Recently our colleagues from the BBC World Service Trust forwarded us a report on "Governance and the Media," an opinion survey of policy makers in the realm of governance and media development. Late last year CommGAP also commissioned a "Governance Advisors Assessment Study" with virtually similar objectives. Both studies gauge the current thinking on the role of the media in governance, its perceived importance, and obstacles to integrating media work into governance reform. Amazingly, both reports present almost identical results.
“Think of a world where everybody is afraid to speak out, then think of a world where no one is afraid to speak up.”