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.
Part of my job is to give advice to teams working on different projects and initiatives in the broad areas of governance and accountability regarding what I like to think of as people-related challenges. And one of the commonest threads running through the initiatives I look at is the challenge of transplanting global norms. Think for a minute about the norms around good governance, around work on anti-corruption. In almost every case, initiatives involve a set of global norms that experts want developing countries to adopt.
Last month, US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer spoke in an engaging panel discussion on the role of art and architecture in civic spheres at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. He talked about the design of Boston’s federal courthouse: an effort that strove to create a building that was accessible and inviting to the people, so that they would recognize it as a public space—their space—and use it.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Close to 30 government officials from seven Asian countries* recently participated in CommGAP’s workshop on communication and governance reform. Entitled People, Politics, and Change, the workshop was held in Manila, Philippines from April 20 to 23. The participant pool included a few high level officials, both cabinet ministers and national parliamentarians. Also in the group were governance specialists from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), and the World Bank’s newly established regional governance hub in Bangkok. Observers included representatives from the Asian Institute of Management and the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication.
As follow-up to CommGAP's workshop "Generating Genuine Demand for Social Accountability Mechanisms" we're working on publishing an edited volume on this issue with Berkeley-Professor Taeku Lee. Looking through the chapters for this book I puzzled over a quite original approach to accountability: information processing. Arthur Lupia, one of our authors and Professor at the University of Michigan, takes a cognitive approach and explains how people's beliefs have to be changed in order to make them demand accountability.