Bureaucracy kills democracy

Civic Action18 Jan 2012Reinier van Hoffen

“As long as states represent the highest form of political authority, it will be impossible to channel human self-interest toward common solutions.”

“As long as states represent the highest form of political authority, it will be impossible to channel human self-interest toward common solutions.” This is stated by Rob Annandale, a Vancouver-based journalist and contributor to the Guardian and a.o. to this debate at The Broker. I admire this statement as it acknowledges the bankruptcy of the state that is likely to follow the failure of the greed-based economic-growth model that it has attempted to serve against all odds. The way of dealing with this that Rob Annandale arrives at in his article is a global democratic structure that does not rely on the nation-state system: “an additional body with global loyalties”. He calls on INGOs to work together towards that end.

However, he also acknowledges that such a centralization of power will have some repercussions and challenges that he does not dwell on in his article. I want to take it from there and while agreeing with his analysis about the state in its current shape, I have a sense that the solutions are to be found in the opposite direction and not necessarily require a replacement of the political representation model that underpins the state. It rather requires a transformation of it, renewing the social contract it requires to function properly. Firstly the focus should not be on the power structure but rather on the power base. Secondly, the means by which a new form of governance has to come into existence is by a transformation of the current governance structure. To start with the latter, the UN reform that Annandale also referred to is not the kind of transformation I am looking for. If we leave it to the system to reinvent itself, change won’t happen. I hope to illustrate this by taking an example of the water sector.

Preferential pathways

The metaphor of preferential pathways that are usually deepened by running water should be hinting us that system reform does not change the system; it only reforms the rules by which the same system is governed. So, what is involved in system change then?

Taking the metaphor a little bit further, we should be looking for the source of the water, which is tax-payers money. This source is obtain by a sophisticated channel diversion system that manages to capture a substantial part of the river of people’s resources for the purpose of ‘serving the public interest’. This upstream diversion takes the water to an artificial reservoir that is being used to gear up a huge ‘hydro-power plant’ to keep the public administrations of this world alive and running. Occasionally the reservoir is also used to supplement water directly to constituencies downstream that experience extraordinary stresses.

As long as everyone enjoys this power (clean running tap water, electricity, schools, hospitals, infrastructure that creates mobility and supports people’s empowerment) everyone is happy and glad that this system exists. However, when major groups are excluded from the power grid, or even worse, when the grid no longer serves the public interest, those that have allowed to syphon off some of their earnings for public services will revolt and replace the government. And in case all political leaders have identified themselves with the system rather then with the people it serves, the whole governance system needs replacement.

Traditional diversion systems and modern resource mobilization

For a long time our governance system could be compared with a nicely controlled irrigation system. However, in focusing on the system we totally forgot about the river water that takes it course, always looking for lower grounds. It reminds me of my masters-thesis research in the Terai in Nepal. A World Bank funded deep-tube well irrigation system initially supplemented the farmer managed irrigation system of rice farmers (rich and poor, big and small, investors from India and settlers that moved down from the hills).

The possibility to tap into this resource turned out highly beneficial in critical periods like the transplantation period of rice (my research period). The system managed to mobilize the aquiver in times the rains had not started yet. Delays in rainfall were problematic as it would cause the rice seedlings grow to big and become useless for transplanting.

As long as the system was subsidized everybody was happy to use it, and even other uses of the fresh water (like by myself, bathing in cold water amidst a hot humid climate) were quickly developed and displayed a tremendous adaptation capacity of the population. However, when the government decided (under pressure of the Structural Adjustment Programs of IMF and the same World Bank) that it was time to handover the systems to its ‘beneficiaries’ it was clear that the costs did not outweigh the benefits. The engines running the deep tube wells were difficult to maintain and running costs were high as petrol prices were soaring. The majority of deep tube-wells were sealed off as a consequence and the traditional system was revived to quite an extend.

Governance systems and citizens perception

Let’s leave the metaphor here. What does this tell us about our current governance crisis? It is increasingly acknowledged that governance got so complicated that it is hard for the average citizen to understand its complexity and see its functions for society. At the same time, lack of transparency has also encouraged a different use of the resources, not in line with it original intend: serving the public interest. Advocacy on behalf of groups in society turned into lobby for the sake of your own business. This situation raises eyebrows with many ordinary citizens that see no longer the returns of their hard labor, allowing the popular vote to gain ground. Hillary Clinton recognized the need for re-focusing on civil interest while launching here QDDR report “Leading through civilian power” in November 2010. She recognized that leading a nation requires dealing with unhealthy bureaucracies and dismantling structures that preserve inequality situations. Through decentralization efforts centralized bureaucracies have tried to get closer to citizens. However, if the political system itself is no longer a representation of citizens’ values, drives and motives, these attempts are destined to fail (in developed as well as developing countries) and democracies will be killed by bureaucracies.

Emerging democratic powers

The social media and resulting Occupy movements are showing that citizens challange the status quo. Where the last code of conduct for good governance prescribes a customer dissatisfaction procedure to be included, this won’t suffice in the new world order of twitter and social media. Already people have discovered that sending twitter messages around is a much more effective way of dealing with inefficiencies of bureaucracies (be it in companies or public bodies). It is high time we develop a number of horizontal accountability mechanisms that make fully use of these new tools but also deal with potential dangers and pitfalls of it. First of course the use of these mechanisms to challenge the status quo will be appreciated. However, some contours of a dictatorship of the loudest voice already appear and once again power dynamics have to be analyzed in order to see how that will impact justice and inequality around the world.

Horizon 2020 showing signs of realism

It is here where the connection needs to be made to the Knowledge and Innovation agenda of Europe. The preparations for the period 2014-2018 are in full swing and the fine tuning will be done at a conference in Brussels on January 31st. Quite a number of governments in Europe have realized that Societal Challenges require our utmost attention in our knowledge and innovation agenda. This is reflected in the provisional budget allocated for it (31,7 billion out of a total of 87,7 billion). Though this being a laudable step towards a more democratic Europe, it’s focus remains European. Though from a competitive angle Europe’s position in the rest of the world is being analyzed, more consideration could have been given to the connection between democratic movements world-wide and Europe’s own democratic challenges. That would bring Europe on board of the international policy agenda and prevents further segregation. It might even be to the benefit of Europe’s own survival, though it would be painful if still our self-interest (enlightened or not) will motivate us to make the connection. In such cases a ‘power surge’ may be the result.