I recently spoke at the World e-Parliament 2009 Conference held in Washington at the US House of Representatives. The conference attracted representatives from all Parliaments and was attended by more than 300 Members of Parliament, Clerks or Secretary -Generals of Parliaments, their deputies and other people working on e-Parliaments. With a global centre in Rome partially funded by the UN Department of Social and Economic Affairs, the group tries to coordinate and develop ICT systems for Parliaments. They strongly believe that ICT can be a tool for greater transparency and accountability of Parliaments and a larger platform for public consultation and interaction with citizens. They are looking at ways to harness new technologies for this purpose.
Governments and development agencies have devoted many years and hundreds of millions of dollars developing democratic governance in countries around the world. The idea of creating democracies is still the primary driver of many governance improvement agendas. Clearly, democratic systems often bring with them improvements in governance and economic development, but simply putting a democracy into place is not enough.
Last week, this blog featured a quote by Elinor Ostrom, which contains an interesting sentence: “Yet I worry that the need for continuous civic engagement, intellectual struggle, and vigilance is not well understood in some of our mature democracies and is not transmitted to citizens and officials in new democracies….We have to avoid slipping into a naïve sense that democracy – once established – will continue on its own momentum."
According to The Financial Times, the U.S. government’s Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board plans to launch in October what the FT calls “the most complex government website in history." The Recovery Board, an independent body headed by Chairman Earl Devaney, is tasked to oversee the outflow of the US $787 billion stimulus package to jumpstart the ailing economy, and the state-of the-art website is intended to engage citizens in tracking the use of taxpayer money.
What caught my attention is the premise behind this initiative—that citizens know best what is happening in their own communities. In an effort to rein in waste, fraud, and abuse of stimulus funds, the Recovery Board is putting into practice the principles of accountability and transparency through partnership with citizens. The Board understands that to carry out its mandate successfully, it needs to equip citizens with information so that they can help the Board do its job. As Mr. Devaney explains, “The website will unleash a million citizen IGs [inspectors-general].”
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'.
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.
I recently gave a talk about the importance of strengthening the public sphere in programs designed to build good governance. In this conceptualization, the public sphere is that space where free and equal citizens discuss, debate, and share information about public affairs in order to influence the policies that affect the quality of their lives. Existing at the cross-roads of media, civil society, public opinion, and state institutions, the public sphere forms an essential element of good governance and accountability.
During the talk, a question arose about whether the public sphere model actually discounted issues such as accountability in favor of building consensus between civil society, media, and government. In my view, this is absolutely not the case, but I can see how such questions arise.