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Archive for the ‘democracy’ Category

The worst possible system of government, apart from all the others that have been tried.

Posted by Andrew Cooper on February 10, 2009

Earlier this morning I commented on the blog post here  which is about a subject that interests me.

Over the past three or four years there has been a lot of talk about re-engaging people in politics, much of it prompted by the idea that technology can help this happen.  But terms like ‘engagement’ and ‘involvement’ are often used without serious consideration of what they would actually mean in practice.  Our systems of government are deeply engrained, based in long established institutions, legal frameworks and, perhaps most importantly, customs and practice.  Just because current information technology enables broader involvement doesn’t mean that it will happen.  

As I suggested in an comment on the same blog, portable  networked computers been around for many years – I sent my first email from a laptop device over 20 years ago.  For most of those two decades pundits predicted that teleworking would revolutionise our working habits and travel patterns.  It still hasn’t happened – those of us who telework are at the margins, most people still travel to their place of work and the airlines still rely on business travel for much of their income.  The reasons we don’t telework (or tele-educate, for that matter) have nothing to do with technology and everything to do with how we best interact with one another in groups.

Posted in cognitive surplus, democracy, government | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Power to the People – follow-up

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 4, 2008

Here’s my latest missive to the relative of mine with whom I’ve been discussing the ‘Power to the People’ post via email.  I’m working on a couple of projects which are to do with involving the public directly in policy formulation, so I’m not just banging on about this for the sake of it.   More on the projects in question very soon, I hope.

‘Dear L,

I think that’s probably a straw man argument.  Now that I’m nearly 53 I think I realise – as I may not have done when I was 18 – that there’s no such thing as absolute truth.  Even in science, the knowledge we have is always provisional and is likely to be proven wrong at any moment.  Al Gore called his film “An inconvenient truth”.  I suppose that was more snappy than “An inconvenient set of hypotheses about the likely causes and consequences of climate change which most climate scientists more or less agree on but are very difficult to prove in any substantive way due to the poorly understood and extremely difficult to model systems which are involved”, although that would be a more accurate title!

I once came across a paper written by an academic called Lindblom titled “The science of muddling through”.  It’s about policy formulation and planning, particularly in relation to government policies.  Lindblom argues against the ‘classical’ model of planning – decide what you want to achieve in the future, set some goals, develop policies, allocate resources etc. because, he says, it can never work.  You can never be sure what the future will bring, you can’t (particularly when you’re dealing with complex issues like public policy on, say, crime and health) be sure exactly how your policy interventions will play out and so on.  He says that a much more incremental approach is required, certainly with a goal in mind but with something much more akin to experimentation where possible.  For example, instead of implementing a policy on a national basis if you don’t know whether it will work, do some experiments first and see what happens.   In other words, you ‘muddle through’ rather than assume that you can control everything – he saw ‘muddling’ as a good thing. (There’s a good piece from yesterday’s Guardian on this – see the “Ready, fire, aim” approach to planning that’s mentioned here.)

Linblom also argued that the one thing that you should do when things are uncertain and difficult to plan is to make the whole process as open as possible, making lots of information available to people, explaining how decisions will be made, essentially being honest with those involved and treating them like grown ups.

I don’t claim that policy analysis conducted in public – using something like wikipedia, so that lots of people could get involved – is ‘the answer’ but it’s at least interesting to think about what a system like that might be like.  As I’ve noted on my blog, all political parties are saying that more power should be handed to ordinary people and that they should be more involved in the governance of the country.  They are doing this because they know that many people are very cynical about politicians and politics and they think that getting people involved again might change this.

I don’t know whether you heard Lisa Jardine’s ‘Point of View’ talk on Friday but it touched on the dangers of adversarial debate particularly when it’s exaggerated out of all proportion by the media.  There’s a transcript of it here.  I agree with her, and I also think there’s a better way, although I’m not so naive that I think that a ‘better way’ ever be adopted.  I just think that some things – like humanity’s response to climate change – are much too important to leave to short-termist, self-centred politicians.


That last statement is unfair: I’ve met a fair number of politicians, at all levels, and indivdually their committment to public service often shines through.   However, the system forces them to think short term: if you’re going to stay in the job, you have to win votes.   Also, my generally positive view of MPs has been somewhat downgraded following the revelations about their expenses claims earlier in the year.  There was a nasty whiff of corruption in the air and one or two should certainly have been prosecuted, in my view.

Posted in democracy, government, Network of minds, politics | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »