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The Tabloid Over Your Shoulder

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Photo Credit: Flick User fxgeekBefore I joined the World Bank about a year and half ago, I worked for DFID, the British Government's development ministry. DFID is part of the British Civil Service. That means I was a civil servant. And I attended a variety of training courses at the Civil Service College. And the experience taught me a thing or two about the sources of pressures for accountability faced by ordinary civil servants. And here I refer to pressures for accountability emanating from outside the civil service itself. I want to discuss the three leading sources of pressure.

The first source of pressure is Parliament. Members of Parliament can and do ask Ministers all kinds of questions, mostly questions about how the relevant department of state is conducting its business. When the Minister's private office receives these questions, they send them to the relevant senior official and ask her to draft the Minister's answer. I can testify that nothing is taken more seriously. You have to find the answers, sound and factual answers. Otherwise, you will get your Minister into trouble and your department...and yourself! (By the way, citizens also write to Ministers and they have to be treated very seriously as well.)

The second source of external pressure is the judiciary. This is because the courts in the UK have developed a body of law and practice known as 'Judicial Review of Administrative Actions'. Judges can and do review the actions of senior civil servants and apply the test of 'reasonableness'. This is not the place to go into the jurisprudence. Suffice it to say that the judges are such a factor in the life of the senior civil servant that a famous manual exists entitled 'The Judge Over Your Shoulder'. It invites you, Madame Senior Civil Servant, as you make a major decision, to imagine that there is a judge standing over you. You must ask: If this decision is ever challenged in court what would a judge say? If you are happy with the answer go ahead and decide. If not, don't do it.

The third source of pressure for accountability? The media, particularly the tabloids. The UK, it is well known, has a robust media system. The tabloids are particularly ferocious. Tony Blair once famously referred to the British press as a 'feral beast'. But, you know, for accountability feral beasts can be useful things. I can confirm that one of the things you get taught in Civil Service College is to subject your actions as a civil servant to what might be called the Tabloid Test. When I took the relevant course, the  group was asked which was the tabloid we feared the most. We mentioned different ones: the Sun, the Daily Mail, the Mirror and so on. The trainers said that before you do anything, imagine the story leaking to the tabloids and imagine the tabloids rendering you activities in the worst possible light. If you can live with the thought go ahead and do what you want to do. If you cannot, don't do it. Again, as with the judges, the message is clear: there is always a tabloid over your shoulder. Be careful!

I tell that story to illustrate how external pressure for accountability on a public bureaucracy really works. Yet there are many senior policy makers in international development today who do not take the role of free, plural and independent media systems in making governments accountable seriously. Some of these policy makers work in the rich countries of the Global North. They are familiar with the role the news media play in holding governments accountable in their own countries. They feel the heat of media scrutiny now and again in their own work. Yet they seem to believe that developing countries are somehow different. They talk about securing good governance and yet say that media strengthening initiatives are somehow peripheral to the agenda. I find that real strange, really strange. For why should we not help set the conditions that will make civil servants in any developing country with governance problems worry about the tabloids over their shoulders?

Photo Credit: Flickr user fxgeek

Comments

Submitted by Robin on
Sina, Interesting post. The tabloid test is one of the reasons why it is difficult to see the impact of the media on accountability. Because policy makers try to avoid negative coverage they make life hard for researchers who are trying to understand what the media actually do. This creates a situation where the media appear not have much of an impact but where people within government seem very sensitive about what is said about them and their agencies. If the media are so unimportant why are they so bothered about their clippings? A lot of the impacts of the media on governance are quite subtle. Recently I was talking to someone who had been head of communications in one of the most senior US executive departments and he made a very interesting point. Every week his boss had a media availability. In preparation for this they had to find out what was going around the department. The communications director felt that this exercise was crucial in allowing the cabinet secretary to maintain some kind of control over the operation of the department as a whole. This was particularly interesting as I've heard the same point made about the State Department. The daily press briefings create a constant pressure to maintain agreed (signed off by the ranking official) statements of policy towards all the countries in the world. Even if questions are never asked about particular countries the external accountability plays a significant role in making the bureaucracy function. External accountability (to the media and public) is a source of internal accountability (to the management structure). The possibility of being on the front page of a tabloid or even the boss being asked a question about your agency that he or she doesn't have a good answer for is quite a powerful motivating force for people in government.

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