A renewed democracy must stop infantalising citizens and instead make them privy to the policy-making process

In a digital age, the closed world of institutions is no longer viable. To rebuild trust and re-engage citizens, technology can be used to change the way decisions are made, how citizens are involved and how institutions are held to account, argue Dave Richards and Martin J. Smith


Credit: Martin Fisch, CC BY ND 2.0

Britain is facing a major crisis in politics.  There is now strong evidence that people no longer trust politicians or political parties, that turnout and political engagement is in decline and there is growing support for parties outside of the mainstream. There is a sense that the public are detached from a political class that is increasingly regarded as too similar in social background, career trajectory and even political aspirations. Even with what seems to be a reviving economy, no major party is able to offer a clear alternative to the politics of austerity and a commitment to shrinking public services and so is unsurprising that all politicians ‘seem the same’.

For some, ironically, the source of this crisis can predominantly be explained by the rise of a politically illiterate and complacent citizenry, who hold unrealistic expectations of what democratic politics can deliver on and in so doing have become inured to the benefits of democracy. The view from this perspective is that people increasingly fail to appreciate how lucky they are to live in a stable political system where politicians work selflessly for the good of the public.

The public fail to appreciate the tough decisions that political leaders are taking to rein in public spending; all for our own good.  Matthew Flinders, a vocal protagonist of this particular critique, concluded in a recent TEDx lecture, the problem is not too little democracy but too much  as politicians clamour to satisfy the overinflated demands of a politically naïve electorate (effectively rehashing the ‘overload thesis’ of the 1970s). In normative terms, what is being offered is an implicitly conservative view that seeks to defend the position of political institutions and a related set of practices which are rooted in a nineteenth century model of top-down democracy and accountability.

Our argument is very different. To understand the source of contemporary political disengagement, we need to recognise that for too long political elites have been making decisions without reference to the public and that the role of the electorate has been to do little more than legitimise politics and not to be involved in politics. The crucial problem is that Britain’s representative model of democracy is based on an out-dated set of ideas, sometimes referred to as the British Political Tradition, which sees democracy as essentially based on elites making decisions that are chosen by and accountable to the electorate. Through parties there is some circulation of elites both horizontally and vertically, as the electoral cycle sees party replaces party, while also providing some limited access for people to access the political system by being party members and working their way into elected positions.

What is fascinating about the British political (and economic) system is the everyday operation of institutions. In recent years, hardly a day passes when there is not a revelation about a political actor or an institution taking a decision in secret that now seems dubious and in some cases explicitly deceitful or even illegal. In the first week of July 2014 for example, we have seen:

  • the revelation that the Metropolitan Police destroyed allegations of sexism and racism within its organisation
  • further questions have been raised over a BBC cover-up following the conviction of Rolf Harris
  • five men on the pay-roll of News International including the Prime Minister’s former Press Secretary Andy Coulson were convicted for conspiracy to phone-hacking in which the presiding judge in his summing-up was highly critical of the manner in which collectively the defendants had failed to ‘co‐operate with the authorities in revealing the true extent of criminal activity among journalists’
  • A ‘missing’ dossier handed to the former Home Secretary Leon Brittan dating back to the 1980s of an alleged ‘Westminster’ paedophilia ring which has led to subsequent revelations that an internal review undertaken by the Home Office last year found 114 related documents were also unaccounted for. This has prompted the current Home Secretary Teresa May to establish an independent review into how public bodies have handled historic sex-abuse claims, led by Peter Wanless of the NSPCC.

As our recent edited book, Institutional Crisis in Twenty-First Century Britain reveals, these events are repetitions of similar sorts of events that have occurred across a range of UK institutions including the scandal around Jimmy Saville, the falsification of evidence in relation to Hillsborough, the manipulation of mortality statistics in hospitals, MPs expenses, a range of banking scandals around mis-selling products and manipulating the Libor rate and of course issues around phone hacking and the links between the media and the political elite.

Such is the nature and regularity of these events it is difficult to dismiss them as ‘bad apples’ or one offs. In our views, these crises have occurred because of the way that the British version of democracy and accountability is embedded in every day activity.  The norm is for institutions to make decisions according to their own rules and regulating the implementation of rules themselves. The Parliamentary expenses scandal occurred because MPs were developing, interpreting and policing their own rules.  In their own view, they were doing nothing wrong because they were unable to see what they were doing from the perspective of the citizen who cannot claim expenses for a new television.  As a former Cabinet Secretary, Sir William Armstrong, said ‘I am accountable to my own idea of a civil servant’ and of course.

But what at the time may have appeared to individual organisations to have been an acceptable, rational and essentially utilitarian mode of internal accountability, in hindsight seems little more than a pathology which allowed for the sustaining of self-interested behaviour at the expense of the wider public interest. Norman Tebbitt when responding to the recent accusations over a cover-up concerning a circle of well-connected Westminster elites in relation to historic child sex abuse, neatly captures this view:

‘At that time most people would have thought that the Establishment, the system, was to be protected. And if a few things had gone wrong here and there that it was more important to protect the system than to delve too far into them. That view was wrong then and it has spectacularly shown to have been wrong because the abuses have grown.’

Such a system worked when the process of decision making, and in many cases the decisions, were not revealed; allegations of sex abuse by Cyril Smith and Jimmy Saville were known amongst the elite but never made public. Whilst our rulers were left to rule, secretive decision making and self-regulation worked. These crises have occurred because the world has changed and increasingly citizens are getting to see inside the working of institutions.  Notable examples include the actual role of the police in the death of Ian Tomlinson being revealed by mobile phone footage, the extent of internet surveillance by government being revealed by Edward Snowden’s leaks and the challenge presented to various government, religious and corporate organisations through the hacking activities by Anonymous. Ironically, the combination of new public management and digitisation has opened up a world of information that allows citizens and social movements to analyse previously closed institutions in much more detail.

The way that the world has changed is leading to a clash between two contrasting cultures. Traditional, top down, elite models of democracy and accountability are no longer sustainable in an age of a digitally more open-society. As the recent Hansard Society Report into PMQs clearly reveals, the people see politicians as out of touch and remote. What we need are two major changes. One is the recognition by institutions that they are now making decisions in an open world. That even if they make decisions in private (which in certain cases they clearly have to) they should recognise that at some point those decisions may need to be justified. Therefore every decision should be made on the basis that if it were open it would be deemed as legitimate.

The second is the development of bottom up accountability – we have to develop mechanisms where accountability is not mediated through institutions (as is the case with parliamentary accountability). In its conclusion, the Hansard Society report proposes new technology could be used to allow citizens rather than MPs to ask questions at Prime Minister’s question time. This is one of many forms of citizen led accountability that could reinforce the openness of decision making.

New technology creates the opportunity to move away from 19th century democracy. Technology can be used to change the way decisions are made, how citizens are involved and how institutions are held to account. This is already happening with social groups using social media, on-line petitions and mobile technologies as part of their campaigns. However, this process needs to be formalised (such as in the Hansard Society’s suggestion for citizen’s questions).  There is also a need for more user friendly ways of analysing big data around government performance.  Big data creates many new ways in which decisions can be opened up and critically reviewed.  We also need much more explicit policies of leak and whistleblowing so that those who do reveal the inner workings of governments are not criminalised.

Fundamentally, the real change is about treating citizens as grown-ups recognising that they can be privy to the details of the policy-making process. There is a great irony in the playground behaviour of Prime Minister’s question time and the patronising attitudes of political elites towards voters (which tends to infantilise citizens as not to have the expertise to fully participate). The most important change is that institutions start to act as if they are operating in an open society where they are directly accountable and hence are in a position to start regaining the trust of the people. The closed world of institutions is no longer viable in a digital age.

This post originally appeared on Policy Network’s site and is re-posted with permission

Note: this post represents the views of the authors and not those of Democratic Audit or the LSE. Please read our comments policy before posting. The shortened URL for this post is: https://buff.ly/1oaLYUs

DavidRichards Dave Richards is Professor of Public Policy at the University of Manchester.
martin_smith Martin Smith is Anniversary Professor of Politics at the Department of Politics at the University of York.

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