January 30, 2010
Humbling power's arrogance
by Malcolm Knox in The Sydney Morning Herald
In his new book The Life and Death of Democracy, the Australian-born and British-based politics professor John Keane argues that the 4500-year-old progress of democracy has just entered a new phase.
Keane calls it ''monitory democracy''. As distinct from the assembly democracy of classical Athens and the representative democracy that spread through the Western world with the industrial revolution, monitory democracy, he writes, is ''a brand-new historical form of democracy''.
For Keane, traditional markers of democracy such as free elections and open courts are becoming less important than ''the public scrutiny and public control of decision makers''. Since 1945, he writes, the world has seen the invention of ''more than a hundred different types of power-monitoring devices that never before existed within the world of democracy''.
They include ''public integrity commissions, judicial activism, local courts, workplace tribunals, consensus conferences, parliaments for minorities, public interest litigation, citizens' juries, citizens' assemblies, independent public inquiries, think tanks, experts' reports, participatory budgeting, vigils, blogging and other novel forms of media scrutiny''.
It is within this epochal change that the demand has grown for information portals such as the Federal Government's My School website, unveiled this week. Putting to one side issues of how school information quality is refined and then used by the public, the demand for school league tables fits into the same public groundswell that has produced monitoring devices as diverse as the activist organisation GetUp!, the donations watchdog Democracy4Sale, and the TV program The Gruen Transfer.
Dr Janine O'Flynn, an Australian National University academic focusing on public sector management, says the access delivered by the online world ''creates the expectation that government data is and should be freely available'' to the public. In less-developed states, transparent democracy is a safeguard against abuses of human rights. Mark Ahrens, the director of the Australian branch of Transparency International, says Australia ranks in the world's top quartile of transparent democracies but ''the existence of state governments and their different standards of transparency diminish our standing''.
Transparency on trains, schools and hospitals is on the same spectrum as the more basic democratic demands for transparency on law enforcement and the judiciary.
''Post-democratic'' societies, Keane writes, have moved beyond anxiety over human rights and electoral fairness to concern over the transparency of government service providers. But greater transparency is not necessarily an unalloyed good: ''These watchdog and guide-dog and barking-dog inventions … penetrate the corridors of government and occupy the nooks and crannies of civil society, and in so doing they greatly complicate, and sometimes wrong-foot, the lives of politicians, parties, legislatures and governments.''
In so doing they can also paralyse the efficient working of government. The debate over transparency, says O'Flynn, ''has been won, and now the debates are over the consequences of accepting the need for greater transparency''.
And here's the rub. In public sector areas where the public's demand for hard data is greatest - schools' performances, hospital waiting times, timeliness of trains and buses - the risk is highest that the pressure to provide transparent information will interfere with the performance of basic functions.
''More accountability can mean less efficiency'' is how O'Flynn explains this tension. ''There has been a huge increase in reporting and performance focus which stretches organisations which are also expected to deliver an efficiency dividend.''
Within the health, education and transport bureaucracies in particular, she says, ''there is a real risk'' that the demands of providing transparent information can paralyse the very functions that are being measured. ''Every public sector organisation is trying to find this balance, between performing the actual functions and 'performing the performance'.''
Beyond that, the demands of monitory democracy sprout complex problems. Information is not always readily available or in a form that can be interpreted without a great degree of editing and shaping.
''The capture of the data can be enormously expensive,'' says O'Flynn, who is studying whole-of-government programs that run into difficulties when different governments' data systems ''don't talk to each other''.
Then there are issues of how the data gets presented and edited - a main focus of debate this week over My School - and whether accountability systems can be ''gamed'' so that schools, for instance, will focus on a narrow band of ratings-friendly performance at the expense of broader, and better, education.
Beyond that lie questions of how the public uses the information. When a star ratings system on job search agencies was started under the Howard government, O'Flynn says, ''it was meant to stimulate competition among the agencies to do better, as the job seekers were expected to favour agencies with more stars. Instead, what happened was that job seekers favoured whatever agency was closest to them.''
With parents of schoolchildren, a different demographic group altogether, that experiment is now being played out.
In 1941 there were only 11 democracies on Earth. Australia was one of them, and is among the longer-lived Western democracies (if behind the US) in the advance of monitory democracy, using people power, as Keane writes, ''pragmatically, as a handy and indispensable weapon for use against concentrations of unaccountable power, and their obnoxious effects''.
The great benefit of monitory democracy, he says, is that ''these devices have the effect of potentially bringing greater humility to the established model of party-led representative government and politics''.
For democratic government, being humbled can have ambiguous results: humbling the arrogant exercise of power is one thing, but humbling the efficient provision of services is quite another.
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