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Public opinion: Should leaders follow it or lead it?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Perhaps, as recent events have shown, no greater challenge confronts statesmen and women than this one: when should leaders yield to public opinion and when should they resist it or lead it?

In many democratic societies there is a presumption in favor of yielding to public opinion on the great public issues of the day. Proponents of direct democracy, for instance, argue essentially that leaders should always yield to public opinion. The assumption here, of course, is that you can always trust “the people”. In any case, it is argued, not to trust the people is to favor rule by unaccountable elites, the same people who almost always look after their own interests…and nothing else.  

There are at least two problems with always trusting “the people”. The first is the problem of expertise or civic competence. Many public issues are complex and many sided, and you need to be able to wade through boatloads of often contradictory expert opinion. Your average citizen in a democracy, even while reasonably educated, is not likely to be terribly well-informed generally let alone be able to decide complex issues. Deliberative Polls try to solve the problem of expertise by (a) selecting a representative sample of the people (b) exposing them to a full range of expert opinions on the key public issue they will vote on (c) allow them to discuss the issue at length before (d) asking them to vote on the issue. These polls often produce fascinating opinion shifts.

The things we do: Why those who see the world differently are always wrong

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Have you ever been in an argument that ended badly, after which you expected to receive an apology? Did the apology come or was the other side also expecting one?  Have you ever done an audit or technical assessment and wondered how a team of professionals could have come to such seemingly erroneous conclusions?  How can that be?  How is that people can have such different views of the same thing?  

One reason misunderstandings occur is that people tend to be naïve realists. That is, we believe that we see social interactions as they truly are. Anyone else who has read what we have read or seen what we have seen will naturally perceive them the say way as we do… that is, assuming they’ve pondered the issue as thoughtfully as we have. In short, our own reality is true, so those who disagree with us must be uninformed, irrational, or biased.
 
However, one of the most enduring contributions of social psychology is the understanding that two people can interpret the same social interaction in very different ways, based on their own personal knowledge and experiences.
 
Tim Harford, the Undercover economist at the Financial Times, recently wrote about naïve realism, calling it the, “seductive sense that we’re seeing the world as it truly is, free of bias.”  He goes on to say that this is such an attractive illusion that whenever we meet someone that contradicts our own view, we instinctively believe we’ve met someone who is deluded rather than question our own rationale.

Washington’s Metro — the costs of carelessness

Brian Levy's picture

This is the second post in a three-part series from Brian Levy on the manner in which the media, activists and politicians talk about the role of government. This post reveals how multiple layers of government and inattention to quality controls leads to deterioration in performance.

June 22, 2009 WMATA Collision
June 22, 2009 accident on Metro's Red Line
For those who are so disposed, finding instances of government dysfunction can be like shooting fish in a barrel. But the resulting back-and-forth cycle of blame, defensiveness and recrimination can be a dangerous distraction from the crucial task of  getting public agencies that play a central role in our daily lives to work better. Take the example of Washington’s Metro.

Each year, as part of my teaching at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, I select a ‘live’ example of the challenge of public management. This year, Washington’s Metro seemed to be a good case to choose — barely a week has gone by without one or another crisis of Metro management making it into the headlines.

The Metro case demonstrates vividly the costs of carelessness in our discourse about government. (In a complementary blog post, I drill more deeply into how this ‘Great Gatsby’ government discourse works. ) But it also points to a possible way forward — how a combination of public entrepreneurship and active citizenship potentially can be leveraged to foster a sustainable turnaround of performance. (For additional detail on the recent Metro experience, here is a link to an article published in the Washingtonian, a few days after I taught the case at SAIS.)

In the beginning, Metro looked like a success story. It opened its doors to passengers in 1976; its 117 miles of track, over 215 million trips per year (and up-front $9.3 billion capital investment) made it the second largest system in the United States. Washingtonians came to expect a streamlined, comfortable, reliable, and aesthetically pleasing commute. In 1987 and again in 1997, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority won ‘Outstanding Achievement’ awards from the American Public Transportation Association.

But beneath this success something else was incubating.  By 2001, the key management tasks had become routine operational ones – but Metro’s long-time (1996-2006) general manager, Richard White, was not one to sweat the details. “He was a frequent visitor on Capitol Hill…He drove to work….He was part of the regional dialogue about highways and land use and everything else….[he] didn’t spend much time mingling with the rank and file”. The system began to decay. In 2006, the Metro board terminated his contract, three years early.

Quote of the Week: John Adams

Sina Odugbemi's picture

"Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide."

- John Adams, the second president of the United States (1797–1801), and, before that, the first vice president of the United States (1789-1797). Adams was a statesman, diplomat, philosopher, and leading advocate of American independence.

Weekly Wire: the Global Forum

Kalliope Kokolis's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

iRevolution
The Geography of Twitter: Mapping the Global Heartbeat

"My colleague Kalev Leetaru recently co-authored this comprehensive study on the various sources and accuracies of geographic information on Twitter. This is the first detailed study of its kind. The detailed analysis, which runs some 50-pages long, has important implications vis-a-vis the use of social media in emergency management and humanitarian response. Should you not have the time to analyze the comprehensive study, this blog post highlights the most important and relevant findings.

Kalev et al. analyzed 1.5 billion tweets (collected from the Twitter Decahose via GNIP) between October 23 and November 30th, 2012. This came to 14.3 billion words posted by 35% of all active users at the time. Note that 2.9% of the world’s population are active Twitter users and that 87% of all tweets ever posted since the launch of Twitter in 2006 were posted in the past 24 months alone. On average, Kalev and company found that the lowest number of tweets posted per hour is one million; the highest is 2 million. In addition, almost 50% of all tweets are posted by 5% of users. (Click on images to enlarge)."  READ MORE

Weekly Wire: the Global Forum

Kalliope Kokolis's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

TechCrunch
Meet The $35 Tablet That Could Connect The World

“TechCrunch just got its hands on the new Aakash UbiSlate 7Ci, the super-cheap tablet that will attempt to connect every student in India to the Internet. Educators have long hoped that cheap computing devices could bridge the global information divide, but previous attempts have been dogged by disappointing performance, lack of Internet access, and financial barriers. The latest version of India’s $35 tablet comes equipped with WiFi and has an optional upgrade ($64) of a cellular Internet package of $2/month for 2 GB of data (roughly 25 emails, 25 websites, 2 minutes of streaming video, and 15 minutes of voice chat a day). More importantly, it is expected to launch this month in India with the government’s commitment to connect even the most remote areas to the Internet. The impact of a successful rollout is difficult to overestimate: rural schools that have been connected to the Internet show immediate and tremendous gains.”  READ MORE

Weekly Wire: the Global Forum

Kalliope Kokolis's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

Trust Law
Corruption in water sector increases hunger risk – experts

“Stamping out corruption in the water sector is crucial to boosting global food production as world population growth increases pressure on water supplies, according to experts meeting at World Water Week in Stockholm.

Corruption in the water sector is already a major problem for farmers and it’s likely to get worse as competition for water increases, a joint statement released by the Water Integrity Network (WIN), Transparency Internationaland the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) Water Governance Facility at the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) said.

Governments, businesses and civil society must work together to improve transparency in the water sector, and introduce better checks and balances to counter corruption and nepotism, the statement said.”  READ MORE 

#1: The Shift from eGov to WeGov

Aleem Walji's picture

Our Top Ten Blog Posts by Readership in 2011

Originally published on July 20, 2011

Last week, more than 59 governments and 100 civil society groups joined the Government of Brazil and the United States to announce the Open Government Partnership (OGP) in Washington, DC. The initiative brings together nation states, civil society, and the private sector to address problems that Governments are unable to solve alone. Rather than seeing citizens and civil society groups as competitors, governments from the North and South asserted that private actors, commercial and non-profit, are essential partners in solving complex social problems. And this requires a new social contract, a shift from eGov to WeGov.

The Enduring Allurement of Technocratic Competence

Sina Odugbemi's picture

The history of political thought has been, in a sense, a tussle between two ideas regarding who should govern: the idea that experts should rule and the idea that the people should rule themselves. It has been a never-ending tussle, and just when you think the idea that the people can and should rule has won, we see established democracies tossing out elected governments and installing rule by technocrats. The issue is important for this blog for a simple reason: in international development, the belief that experts know best and should shape public policy in developing countries is as difficult to kick as an addiction to cocaine.

So, let’s be clear: while the allurement of technocratic competence in a crisis is understandable it remains just a trifle absurd to suppose that technocratic competence can replace democratic politics rather than being its humble servant.  Experts have a huge role in a crisis, financial or otherwise, but to believe that finding a path out of a crisis is the sole business of experts is not only wrong but naïve. For, the response to a crisis is inherently and inescapably political. And this is true on at least two levels.

Weekly Wire: the Global Forum

Kalliope Kokolis's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

Freedom House
Report Finds Governments Restricting Media Freedom Through Regulation

A range of governments are increasingly restricting media freedom using licensing and regulatory frameworks and receive little criticism or attention for doing so, according to Freedom House’s newest report, License to Censor: The Use of Media Regulation to Restrict Press Freedom.

The report provides an overview analyzing this trend at a global level and in-depth analyses of the regulatory environments in eight countries:  Ecuador, Georgia, Indonesia, Lebanon, Pakistan, South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe. It describes some of the most commonly used methods to regulate the media—legal controls on licensing and registration, regulatory bodies that are not independent or operate in an nontransparent or politicized manner, and the imposition of vague content requirements on media outlets—as well as detailing the use of arbitrary or extralegal actions, including license denials and the suspension or closure of media outlets to restrict media freedom.  READ MORE

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