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The Public Sphere Model: Does It De-Emphasize Accountability?

Shanthi Kalathil's picture

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. The public sphere model emphasizes the connective tissue between media, civil society, and government institutions, positing that in order to strengthen democratic governance, one has to see that all these institutions are interrelated. To use an example, it is not enough to simply strengthen the media's ability to perform investigative reporting if you are not simultaneously encouraging government to adopt more open information policies as well as supporting civil society's capacity to help hold government to account. To my mind, this is not synonymous with asking media and civil society to "cooperate" with government - far from it.

Yet I believe we must be careful, when we speak of the public sphere, to ensure that we are clear about the assumed normative roles of all these institutions. In some articulations of the public sphere, there is more of an emphasis on mutual positive reinforcement between media, civil society, and government, predicated on an assumption that such coordination helps deliver positive development outcomes. I believe that, in fact, encouraging coordination between these three aspects of the public sphere delivers exactly the opposite, an unhealthy public sphere that discourages greater transparency and accountability.

These are my own hypotheses, of course, and they bear further examination and discussion. What do you think? Is it possible to encourage the development of a public sphere framework while still maintaining a focus on accountability and transparency?

Photo Credit: Flickr user Sonic Jorge

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