As a salute to the historic passage of health care reform in the United States, a story that this blog has been tracking, I want to recall something that Senator Barack Obama ( as he then was) said in 2008. It was in the course of his epic battle with Senator Hillary Clinton (as she then was) for the presidential nomination of the Democratic party. You will recall that the two of them debated health care reform interminably in those months. The issue was: was health care reform merely a problem of technical design?
"Yet journalism is a critical point. Political journalism in particular must cope with a fragmenting political sphere, the rise of fleet-footed competition from blogs and websites and the decline of an audience. Journalism and politics have, for two centuries, depended on, fought with, supported and tried to destroy each other. Now they sigh for the good old days when they were both certain enough of their respective institutions to engage in combat." -- John Lloyd, Power and the press, Financial Times, February 20 2010
"A vast change has happened in politics in the past half-century. The media have become crucial to the business of governing. Though they do not rule the country, the media sometimes rule the rulers, forcing them to spend long hours wooing, refuting, dodging and complaining."
Will public opinion kill health care reform in the US? Naturally, I don't know the answer to that question. What is interesting is how a reform process that appeared close to conclusion can wobble mightily upon the apparent signaling of public displeasure. If reinforces once again the centrality of politics - and of public opinion- to processes of reform. What matters now, as the leaders of US government grapple with how to conclude or abandon the reform effort, is to reflect on some of the lessons coming out of the process at this point that might be applicable to reform processes generally. The following seem fairly clear:
My last post on this blog discussed public deliberation as a political ideal and what happens when that ideal is tested in an actual decision-making space. In a paper about municipal health councils in Brazil, Andrea Cornwall gives a blow-by-blow description of what happens when deliberative spaces stop being polite and start getting real.
Health councils were established in Brazil’s 1988 ‘Citizens’ Constitution’ and empowered citizens with the right to review and approve executive-level budgets, accounts and spending plans on health programs. Although overshadowed by the participatory budgeting process, Brazilian health councils can also provide some important lessons on how to deepen citizen engagement and decision-making. Through the example of these health councils, Cornwall argues that three elements in particular are often “under-theorized” by deliberative democratic theorists. First, understanding political culture is important. Second, how do party politics infiltrate and impact these spaces? And last, how is power challenged in these spaces? (She describes discussions in this deliberative space more as confrontational rather than reasonable.)
Public deliberation as a political ideal represents the next frontier in democracy building. Public deliberation calls for dramatic changes in how political decisions are made. Through deliberative processes, citizens and not elected representatives, make decisions on how to manage their own resources. These decisions are reached according to the exchange of reasons and arguments that appeal to shared objectives or values. Decisions resulting from deliberation are more informed and rational. Under deliberative processes, political truths emerge not from competing ideas but through dialogue between citizens. Deliberative processes produce information as a by-product, not a precondition for participation.
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.
What is the basis of the claim that 'People, Spaces and Deliberation' are central to how you achieve good and accountable governance durably? One way of buttressing is to step back and reflect on two competing interpretations of governance, really, politics. The first interpretation of governance or politics is that it is purely and simply the business of the elite.