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?
Why don’t Finns worry about locking their bikes on a busy Helsinki Street? Why do Finnish skateboarders who advocate anarchy politely abide by traffic laws? Why indeed is Finland so uncorrupt? The answers to these questions are presented in a paper by Darren C. Zook called “The Curious Case of Finland’s Clean Politics,” which a colleague recently shared with me. Zook points out that, puzzlingly, most corruption literature today focuses on countries where corruption is rampant in order to document and examine incidents and causes of corruption. Instead of focusing on the bad news, he posits, why not learn from the “clean” countries? His paper examines Finland as a source of inspiration for a model of clean government.
In the last posting I discussed two key elements making change difficult to achieve; namely people’s inherent resistance to change and the tendency to design and deliver messages appealing to the rational side of people. This last point is often a cause of limited success in promoting change because it neglects to consider that human behaviours are not always guided by rational considerations, at least in a strict scientific sense (see the still rather strong diffusion of smoking despite that its harm is almost universally acknowledged).Taking into account stakeholders’ perceptions, satisfaction, and cultural models can often be more effective than solutions-based innovations, especially if suggested by external agents of change.
"Look, one of the things that makes politics hard for rank-and-file voters in the United States is just how impossibly large this nation is. In a country of 300 millions, no matter what you do, it's often going to feel like it's a meaningless drop in the ocean. And given the legislative process, time passes between campaigning and enacting bills into law, and by many people have moved on to other parts of their lives. But individuals, and especially small groups of people, really can make a difference. This battle over health care reform is one time when it wasn't just the lobbyists, or the interest groups, or the politicians...whole bunches of small groups of people, in states and Congressional districts across the nation, turned a handful of Senate races and a dozen or two House races around and, sixteen or so months later, their work is, today, most likely going to change the country. If you're one of them, it's a day to be proud of what you've done."
-- Jonathan Bernstein, "We are the Ones", A Plain Blog about Politics.
CommGAP's latest book, Public Sentinel, outlines the role of the news media in governance reform, which is of course all about the roles of journalists in society and political systems. The book identifies three main roles - agenda setters, watchdogs, and gatekeepers - that journalists should, ideally, fulfill in order to strengthen good governance. Looking at a recent report on The State of Freedom of Expression in the Americas, all I can say to a journalist who indeed wants to uphold those ideals: Good luck, and be careful when you cross the street.
On November 17, 2009 the Board of the World Bank approved a new policy that will help strengthen the norm of transparency in governance in the global system. It is the Access to Information Policy. The new policy goes into effect on July 1, 2010. The following elements of the policy are notable:
Why is change so difficult to achieve, even when it seems to be the best solution for a certain problem? We could start by recalling human nature that is usually risk adverse. Probably this derives from our genetic memory going back thousands of years when deviating from a known routine and venturing into the unknown could jeopardize one’s life. Currently, we still tend to be more comfortable with what we know rather than entering uncharted waters. Hesitation and uncertainty that typically accompany changes are also often coupled with a degree of “mental laziness”, as it always takes an extra effort to change old habits in favor of new ones.
We’ve all heard stories about how helpful and at times, epic, the roles of social media have been in crisis situations, both natural and manmade. See, for instance, yesterday's New York Times piece on Ushahidi and Anne Arnold’s previous post on the role of new ICTs and social media in disaster response and development. But I’m of two minds regarding one particular social media application. Twitter allows its users to send out a “tweet” of up to 140 characters, and to keep one’s followers up to date on just about anything under the sun. So I signed up last week to see what’s it’s like to have my very own Twitter account.
I certainly value the enabling environment social media provide to the exercise of voice, especially in places where freedom of expression is suppressed. And heartwarming stories abound of people finding each other through social media. A decade ago, my family was all atwitter when my cousin sheepishly confessed that he met his special someone in a chat room. Today, I’ve heard people tell similar stories with nothing but aplomb. Obviously, there are intrinsic and instrumental values to having multiple routes of self expression. Especially in bad places where speech is silenced through intimidation and brutality.
But there is a difference between tweeting things like “Men in uniform shooting at us -- please help” and “Just went to the bathroom – need to go again”.
"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 reader's comment to the blog post Leaders Who Ignore Public Opinion Lose Their Offices:
"Having worked for quite some time in public opinion research, I could not agree more with your points. “Public Opinion” indeed has become a catch all phrase for a wide range of information, starting with simple popularity questions to very in depth stakeholder assessments.
What I find interesting about the argument in the FT article is that it suggests a fairly strong negative correlation between public opinion and the politician’s success in office. However, his argument rests upon a few individuals, who were successful when researching public opinion was either non-existent or relatively new (and therefore not much used). It also ignores the shift in voting behaviors that actually made it possible for politicians to ignore the public opinion in their day to a certain degree.