Published on Sep 10, 2007
A few weeks ago the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office opened an online forum where citizens can contribute their thoughts on the government’s foreign policy priorities. Several hundred comments have been posted to date.
Such forums have become more numerous as governments have slowly awakened to the opportunities that the Internet provides to exercise the democratic muscles that have atrophied after many years of disuse. For those who have become disillusioned with broadcast politics as usual, this represents a small step in the right direction.
But I wondered what would happen if the Foreign Office were to make the site a little bit more like Digg.com, the popular technology news aggregator that allows users to submit and vote on their favorite stories. If citizens could promote or demote the various policy suggestions of their peers, the most popular ideas would rise to the top. Whether or not the most popular ideas are necessarily the best or most feasible ideas, however, remains a subject of a long-standing political debate.
One recent comment called for the British government to block any attempt by the European Union to admit Turkey into the European club. This would no doubt be a very popular idea in much of the United Kingdom (and indeed across much of Europe). But is excluding Turkey from the social and economic benefits of EU membership ultimately in the best interests of Europe? And wouldn’t such an exclusionary policy further strain relations between Muslims and the West?
The idea of voting on the evening news has rightly been shunned by political analysts, left and right. Democracy is supposed to be about informed debate and inclusive deliberation. But forums that purport to engage citizens in policy-making unearth some difficult questions. Is the role of democracy to express the popular will of “the people”? Or is most the appropriate role of citizenry to elect “enlightened representatives” who are empowered to make reasoned decisions on our behalf? I won’t even try to answer that question here, but feel free to weigh in with your comments.
Meanwhile, the World Bank Institute has recently come out in favor of measures that increase “social accountability”. It released a comprehensive report detailing the steps that OECD countries have taken to engage their citizenries in policy-making. Among it’s key conclusions, the Institute noted that heightened social accountability is coming, whether governments like it or not.
Both government officials and politicians in OECD member countries are under increasing pressure to take individual responsibility for their use of the power and resources at their disposal. The public increasingly demands information about what decisions have been taken by which officials; in most OECD member countries, the right to access such information is guaranteed by law. There is an expectation that citizens will be made aware and consulted in advance about decisions that affect them. Flowing from this is a right, given institutional form in many states, that the citizen will be able to challenge administrative decisions and seek redress for failures of government.
The point is worth underscoring. In an age of empowered citizens, governments will be under increasing pressure to find increasing room for the authentic voices of citizens in just about everything they do. Policy-makers are advised to start thinking about how they can do so in way that diminishes the risk of mob rule and promotes fair, inclusive and well-informed debate instead.