Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Do 'people know better than politicians'?

The recent Open Public Services White Paper is, according to its authors, not based on ideology but driven by 'a belief that people know better than politicians'. Given public outrage over MPs expenses and phone hacking one might be tempted to nod in agreement. Politicians ethical compass has been very wonky indeed in recent years. 

But one can go further. This sort of claim or assertion has become increasingly commonplace across the political spectrum not just out of some self abasement to public concern about ethics but also from  arguments about the role and need for the apparatus of the state itself. 

So such a thoroughgoing statement  deserves a lot more scrutiny. Taken to its logical conclusion it would support huge changes in the way that we govern ourselves. Our politicians may have a lot to be ashamed about but that is mainly about how they have played their role rather than what they are there to do in a representative democracy.

With apologies for a quick diversion into classical antiquity, Western democracies still derive some of their ideals from the reforms introduced by Cleisthenes in 6th century Athens intended to break up the power of the old aristocratic families and subject the boule (the council of 50) to the supreme authority of the ecclesia (the assembly of all the citizens). The notion was that the ecclesia would meet sufficiently frequently to deal with any important state matter.

Since then much time and effort has been spent on the arguments about the roles of more representative and more participative forms of democracy. Modern democracies strike the balance in a rather different way to the ideals proposed in 6th century Athens. Most of us would view that as a necessary thing if only as a matter of scale but whether it is a good thing has become subject to more debate in recent years (referendums being an issue that arouses particular passions).

There have also been various modish (not to say faddish) ideas about the 'wisdom of crowds' and 'crowdsourcing' which have generated interest among (elected) politicians. At the risk of misrepresenting what each of these mean my twopenneth is that the wisdom of crowds suggests that the aggregation of independent individual views will produce a better outcome than leaving it up to experts; crowdsourcing on the other hand suggests a rather more practically based approach that it is possible for decision makers and others to tap into a wider pool of knowledge and secure a better outcome as a result.

The seductive attractions of the wisdom of crowds is clear for those seeking to argue that the formal apparatus of decision making, experts, bureaucracies and, yes, politicians can be slimmed down (or indeed removed). Free individuals can do it themselves provided that those pesky interruptions to the free play of ideas don't corrupt the process thereby, one is tempted to say, crowding out the crowd.

There are well acknowledged isues about how well participative techniques can move on from more practical solution orientated crowdsourcing to more deliberative decision making. Councils up and down the land have arrangements ranging from citizen panels to participatory budgeting in place. But they still need politicians however strong the input from their communities.

The reason why it is more complicated than the view of the people being better than that of the politicians arises from the simple fact that different people think different things. The reason that we elect people is to make decisions where there is a need to make choices between competing interests, whether those are the interests of individuals or of sections of the community. That is the very stuff of politics. We expect decision making to be done properly and we have rules in place to ensure that it is free from corruption and undue influence. But we need decision makers.

Certainly, decisions should be subject to proper scrutiny and be improved by informed analysis. 'Which' is expert at presenting the perspective of the consumer and many of us have a good deal of sympathy with much of what it says. But it is self selecting. It has no wider legitimacy. Nor do any of the other organisations which have been touted as having a role to play in holding public bodies to account. They hold sectional viewpoints, many of which are far more capable of being disputed than the views expressed by 'Which'.

But there is a role for a modern form of the ecclesia. It is captured well in the recent proposal from Compass and NEF for a People's Jury at the national scale to help 'tame the feral elites' (one suspects Cleisthenes is nodding in sympathy). The aim is to help put the public interest ahead of sectional interests. The output from the Jury would be a clear statement of the tests that could be applied when judgements are being made about what are at root ethical decisions which should be made by the politicians without fear or favour in terms of the media, financial or other interests. This seems to me to place responsibilty correctly. Decisions are still being made by politicians but with a clear grounding in a considered, researched and properly discussed view from people drawn from across Britain to help guide them and gird them.

This is the ecclesia working with politicians to keep in check the sectional interests that always seek more and more power. That Cleisthenes knew a thing or two.

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