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I'd like to dedicate the following text to my mother, Joan, who passed away peacefully in Adenbrookes hospital in Cambridge, England at the same time I was writing this text in my hotel room in Zurich. My gratitude goes out to her for all she did for me, but in particular for those childhood moments in the kitchen when she would listen attentively to me as I spun out my ideas and projects to her.

Ways and means of governance - questioning representative government

Our subject here is finding satisfactory ways and means to govern. This text was written in preparation for the ICANN Studienkreise meeting in Zurich, but it adopts a much broader perspective than ICANN, fuelled by my work on a local level in Saint-Blaise.Net and my thoughts about governance in general. see also a related article, also written in Zurich, "Must groups oppose individuals - thoughts about the ICANN at large membership".

As all decisions necessarily affect everybody in a highly interconnected world, one might argue that everybody should have their say on everything. Such a proposition is clearly quite unrealistic and totally unmanageable. That impossibility - a sort of reducto ad absurdam, pushing things to their extreme to prove they won't work - does not dispense us from finding forms of participation.

At this point you may well ask. "Why bother?" A young woman at the Zurich meeting said, "Why do I have to do the work twice. I have elected my representative so why should I also have to get involved in all this?" Here is a key question! Why can't we sit back and let the representative system work for us? The answer is complex. First of all, a growing number of people are dissatisfied with the representative system. There are a whole series of problems with the system especially in an extremely complex, fast changing world in which hitherto clear boundaries cease to be pertinent. What's more, I suspect that there is an increasing yearning to be involved on the part of people who would categorically refuse to get involved in the current political systems. So what are the problems with the representative mode that drive people to seek alternatives?

1. Conflict-based decision-making

In our current political system, decision-making is based on conflict. That is to say, by opposing ideas we assume that the best proposition will win out and be accepted by the majority. Winning becomes paramount, and the aim of developing the best solutions invariably gets lost by the wayside. In political debate, discussion is polarised leaving little or no possibility of recombining opposed positions to evolve unexpected and possibly more appropriate solutions. In a conflict-based approach to decision-making adopting part of somebody else's solution is tantamount to conceding defeat. Group identity is often founded on the opposition to other groups.

2. Binary decision-making

The binary voting system - for or against - when it comes to deciding on an issue, often leads to inappropriate decisions in which people are faced with an insurmountable dilemma in wanting to choose and often end up voting "yes" or "no" on quite different ideas than those they are supposed to decide about.

3. Innovation

The current political system can be extremely wasteful in terms of good ideas. Ideas generally stem from individuals, but as the system is based on the polarisation between groups, however good those individual ideas may be, they rarely get heard of and even less implemented. To a certain extent, the world of free enterprise does better in encouraging individuals to develop and implement their ideas. In politics there is no really satisfactory mechanism for the ideas of individuals (who are not necessarily affiliated to political parties or other pressure groups) to elaborate their ideas and feed them into the process. Innovation almost invariably comes from within existing groups and structures, and only then when an enlightened, or obstinate individual has sufficient sway within the group to get his or her ideas put into practice.

4. Loss of legitimacy

Elected representatives loose their legitimacy. How? Firstly in that they do not represent those that elected them, but rather further their own interests (and the pursuit of their political career) or the interests of one particular group. They follow a party line dictated more by positioning themselves with respect to opposing parties or an underlying, rigid ideology than by the circumstances at hand, let alone the long-term perspective. Secondly, they are elected by a declining section of the population as the majority of people are no longer interested in voting.

5. Poor role of the individual in decision-making.

To a certain extent as representation requires divesting your right to decide to somebody else, it naturally contains the grains of demotivation. Other factors come into play in the decline of motivation: individuals no longer understand what is happening. They are often maintained in their feeling of incapacity by experts who gain their identity and their livelihood by providing understanding that most others are said not to have. It is often these self-same technocrats who, in the name of efficiency, would have decision-making divested in their hands by those who have been elected.

6. Politics apart from life

For all its impact on their lives, politics remains an activity that is outside the everyday life of most people. It is as if decision-making about the community were in someway divorced from the everyday life of most community members. I am reminded of learning. The similarity between politics (in the sense of deciding collectively about "community" affairs) and learning is that they are activities which should naturally be integrated into our daily lives, but which have been separated off and given over to experts without whom they are no longer supposed to be possible.

7. Communication with representatives

In the current representative system with the division between the electors and the elected, individuals feel that their needs and opinions are not taken seriously by those they have elected. Communication has broken down. It is admittedly not an easy situation. To avoid being influenced unduly by the desires and opinions of pressure groups and individuals, some politicians choose to cut themselves off from their electorate. As a result, it is as if they had some sort of godly mandate, on the basis of which, whatever they put forward must be good for everybody. On the other hand, suppose that citizens suddenly became extremely active, how would the elected representative handle the mass of communication. Given the increasing divorce between electors and the elected, individuals end up by loosing faith in their representatives and become disinterested in politics. A considerable number move out of politics and discover alternative ways to influence the course of things, not always with very positive results, especially when frustration leads to violence.

8. The status of staff in implementing decisions

The implementation of decisions and even the taking of decisions themselves are delegated to paid staff who are not necessarily accountable to the electorate. There is a transfer of power without there necessarily being an accompanying transfer of accountability. This transfer is carried out in the name of efficiency and knowledge.

9. The company model for implementing decisions

The dominant model for implementing decisions is that of the company and the argument has it that only such an approach can stand up to the competition and the complexity of the modern world. It is not at all self-evident that the company model is a good-decision-making and implementation structure, especially when it comes to handling "community" life. In the name of efficiency, all possibility of making decisions on the basis of other values is brushed aside.

10. Communication by market surveys and opinion polls

This technocratic approach, amongst other things is plagued with a problem that besets companies : they loose touch with their "clients" and have to adopt costly but inefficient means to discover something of what is expected of them. In addition, administrations have great difficulty in implementing their decisions because they are not understood or appreciated by those that are most effected by them, the citizens.

11. The question of underlying values

Finally, and most importantly, there is no clear definition of the values that underlie decision-making. The major criteria for judging solutions are cost and efficiency. Attempts to introduce debate about underlying values generally produce conflicting situations, as mentioned above. Such discussions are often refused on the grounds that they only waste time, when time is so short and there is so much to do. Those who argue for "getting on with things" are not a hundred percent wrong. Suffice it to notice the number of times that debate on orientation and procedure gets bogged down in unending discussions. That we have difficulties in conducting such discussions doesn't not do away with the fact that hasty, ill thought out decisions can produce disasters in the long run. A middle way needs to be found between trigger-happy management and head-in-the-clouds philosophising.

Possible solutions

  1. Develop non-conflictual approaches to decision-making.
  2. Collectively define an overarching value framework that guides decision-making within any given area.
  3. Enhance the role of the individual, in particular by reintegrating community-based decision making into every day life.
  4. Organise participation in decision making in terms of circles of interest within the overarching value framework
  5. Integrate the notion of learning into decision-making.

Alan McCluskey, Zurich

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Created: February 3rd, 2001 - Last up-dated: February 3rd, 2001