New Media Awards - How to freshen up democracy

Imagine tracking your tax form, following a planning inquiry or lobbying your MP, all from home. Pat

Jack Straw's secret is now thrillingly out in the open. Against all expectations, the new draft freedom of information bill is the most radical departure this government has yet undertaken. Straw and his advisers have rejected the old and apparently bold white paper he took over from David Clark as being too 20th century for the 21st century we are about to enter.

Straw's bill, introducing what the Home Secretary calls "open-book government", will give everyone in reach of a PC, a digital TV or a telephone direct interactive access to policy information and their own personal files. Central government, local authorities, all public bodies and other significant institutions in modern Britain will have to adopt the Home Secretary's vision.

So anyone trying to piece together official policies and data will be able to do it for themselves, without relying on official gatekeepers in government or media interpretations of the news. Everyone dealing with a government department, local council or other public authority - over, say, their income tax, an immigration decision, a pension or welfare benefit - will be able to discover how their own case is being handled. Using a personal identification number, they will be able to find what stage their application has reached and who is handling it, without having to phone officials or visit government offices to find out what is happening.

Straw's bill includes funding to provide PC access points in all major public libraries, town halls and neighbourhood offices, social security offices, citizen's advice bureaux and other advice agencies.

In our dreams. Unfortunately, Straw adheres firmly to mid- century beliefs about the role of the state. The man (or woman) in Whitehall may no longer know best, but much of what he or she knows is best kept secret, and especially so if they are in the Home Office, the security forces or the police. So freedom of information legislation will probably be a far more conservative version of Clark's white paper plans, and will make little or no reference to the potential for electronic transparency and accountability.

But we should not assume that ministers can hold back the tide indefinitely. Government departments are constantly compared with private corporations in how they handle inquiries, complaints and access to information. If you send a parcel overseas via DHL, you get a code number that allows you to access the company's databases and track its progress, and if the parcel is going the wrong way, a simple e-mail to DHL ensures that it is redirected correctly and you are compensated. If these service standards become commonplace in the private sector, government can hardly stand aloof.

People who pay tax, who want to track a relative's application to enter Britain, or who apply (electronically) for a state benefit will increasingly expect to receive an immediate code reference - and to be able to dial up and track the progress of their "transaction". Claimants need never again be told that their giro is "in the post". It won't matter if a tax inspector is in or out of the office, you should still be able to find out exactly what is going on.

What we are talking about here is "open-book government". And it would reveal much more information about how government operates, how complex it is and how arcane many processes are. It would thus surely lead to better government.

This is the potential that should be driving reform. But what are the obstacles? First, the official mindset regards new information technology at best as a faster and cheaper means of doing what has always been done. When government systems were first computerised they were not "re-engineered" to make them simple and efficient - they were just shifted over as they were. The Conservative government's passion for contracting out government IT systems made things worse - civil servants no longer fully understand their own departments' systems, let alone know how to restructure them. Rather than put in new investment or system renewals, the government simply passed the mess on to the major IT companies.

Second, Whitehall by and large still regards the web as a small-scale change, a new opportunity for PR, a convenient place to store ministers' biographies, current departmental press releases and odd bits of public information, updated once or twice every three years. Despite pressure from Alastair Campbell's strategic communications unit for a unified "front end" for British government as a whole, government on the web remains an eclectic mess of different departments' and agencies' approaches. Whitehall cannot even get its act together to give the full information on the quangocrats who run the quango state, as recent Democratic Audit studies have shown. Yet that was one of Labour's pre-election pledges.

The existing government websites (and more so, local authority sites) are virtually all stand-alone, discrete operations - insulated from any connection to the actual working databases of departments and agencies. Whitehall officials react with horror to the idea that citizens might want to get beyond a public relations annex and gain access to core systems themselves. But that is what "open-book" systems are going to mean more and more in the private sector. So-called "web-enabled systems" are being used by corporations to create what they term "zero-touch" processes, which allow customers to access files electronically, place orders, pay and receive goods automatically - without a single employee so much as touching a keyboard. All this requires that web access goes straight into the company's main working systems. Sophisticated security systems protect companies' confidential information, rather than crude physical separation, as in Whitehall. The potential costs of freedom of information already trouble civil servants, but open-book government promises a self-funding, or even possibly a cost-saving, future for Whitehall.

This is the nub of it. Standard-issue freedom of information would make the quangos, as well as government at all levels, more transparent. But citizens would still have no access to meetings, to inspect minutes and verbatim transcripts of meetings, to know what meetings take place with interest groups, and so on. Add open-book government to the formula and suddenly the whole process moves far faster. The policies and decisions of the expert committees that rule on the safety of food and drugs, and control genetic experiments in the environment, hazardous substances, nuclear activities and waste, would at once be made open to peer-group review and public debate. The secret dealings that government departments and other authorities, including local councils, have with major national and local interest groups could be weighed against wider concepts of public consultation and interest.

Open-book government could also form a significant part of a new era of "electronic democracy". It need not simply improve access and transparency to government, but it could also help give new life and meaning to representative democracy as we know it. The same electronic advances could make public consultation and participation wider, easier and more diverse; and provide new media opportunities which could both focus and diversify the information people receive and obtain for themselves, as the old media fragment into more and more apolitical and specialised forms - sports channels, gardening channels, fashion channels, golf channels and so on.

A wonderful example of the potential here was the BBC's Election 97 website, which on election night itself recorded more than 1.5 million "hits". During the election, the website not only provided far more reliable basic information than any conventional mass media source, but it also allowed people to e-mail queries and get answers. As supposed experts in politics, we were stunned by the quality of the questions submitted, the insights they contained and the appetite for information and debate that they revealed - party policies, opinion polls, electoral trajectories and key issues were clarified and debated in depth. The site earned the BBC great credit. But not the aftermath. The site was briefly made permanent as "Politics 97", but has since been swept away in a Birtian re-modelling, cost-cutting and dumbing down of the BBC's entire web output.

Yet this and other innovations have shown the enormous potential for greater "discursive democracy". Government departments, local councils and other public bodies can make clear how they shape their policies and invite interested citizens and specialists to participate directly in determining them. Interactive question-and-answer sessions, policy forums, panels and discussion groups, planning consultations, chat-lines, even tabloid-style votes can all generate a great deal more information that policy-makers should consider. They could also give far more in-depth information more cheaply and conveniently, respond to people's questions and ideas and encourage the public to submit proposals for action.

Already the BSE inquiry has shown the way, transferring daily transcripts of its proceedings to the web within hours of witnesses having spoken. The potential for other public inquiries, parliamentary select committees and other central government bodies to do the same is immense. And at local level the possibilities for handling local planning decisions, plans for reorganising secondary schools or healthcare proposals are endless.

Electronic democracy opens up bigger questions about the relationship between politics and the media. Some commentators insist that the media perform an independent role, while critics allege that they are subject to a variety of pressures, including state dominance and political spin. But it is not too cynical to state that newspaper, TV and radio coverage is always mediated by forces and powers that are far from transparent; that the media reinforce powerful views and interests rather more often than they interrogate them; and that they seek to entertain rather than to inform.

Ten years from now, the media will be highly diversified, television viewers will be spoilt for choice, and the press will be a very special product indeed. But the new electronic media just might offer much more unmediated information - just as some television time will give raw access not only to major news dramas but also more specialised political and social happenings. Sky, for example, made a feature of unedited party political news conferences at the last election.

The government has a duty to kick-start the momentum for more diversified citizen access by introducing genuinely radical freedom of information laws and ending the era of closed-book government. The pressures for democratisation are running strongly in parallel with the desire for more efficient and effective government. Will new Labour seize the moment?

Patrick Dunleavy is professor of government at the London School of Economics; Stuart Weir is director of the Democratic Audit, University of Essex

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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Lexit: the EU is a neoliberal project, so let's do something different when we leave it

Brexit affords the British left a historic opportunity for a decisive break with EU market liberalism.

The Brexit vote to leave the European Union has many parents, but "Lexit" – the argument for exiting the EU from the left – remains an orphan. A third of Labour voters backed Leave, but they did so without any significant leadership from the Labour Party. Left-of-centre votes proved decisive in determining the outcome of a referendum that was otherwise framed, shaped, and presented almost exclusively by the right. A proper left discussion of the issues has been, if not entirely absent, then decidedly marginal – part of a more general malaise when it comes to developing left alternatives that has begun to be corrected only recently, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Ceding Brexit to the right was very nearly the most serious strategic mistake by the British left since the ‘70s. Under successive leaders Labour became so incorporated into the ideology of Europeanism as to preclude any clear-eyed critical analysis of the actually existing EU as a regulatory and trade regime pursuing deep economic integration. The same political journey that carried Labour into its technocratic embrace of the EU also resulted in the abandonment of any form of distinctive economics separate from the orthodoxies of market liberalism.

It’s been astounding to witness so many left-wingers, in meltdown over Brexit, resort to parroting liberal economics. Thus we hear that factor mobility isn’t about labour arbitrage, that public services aren’t under pressure, that we must prioritise foreign direct investment and trade. It’s little wonder Labour became so detached from its base. Such claims do not match the lived experience of ordinary people in regions of the country devastated by deindustrialisation and disinvestment.

Nor should concerns about wage stagnation and bargaining power be met with finger-wagging accusations of racism, as if the manner in which capitalism pits workers against each other hasn’t long been understood. Instead, we should be offering real solutions – including a willingness to rethink capital mobility and trade. This places us in direct conflict with the constitutionalised neoliberalism of the EU.

Only the political savvy of the leadership has enabled Labour to recover from its disastrous positioning post-referendum. Incredibly, what seemed an unbeatable electoral bloc around Theresa May has been deftly prized apart in the course of an extraordinary General Election campaign. To consolidate the political project they have initiated, Corbyn and McDonnell must now follow through with a truly radical economic programme. The place to look for inspiration is precisely the range of instruments and policy options discouraged or outright forbidden by the EU.

A neoliberal project

The fact that right-wing arguments for Leave predominated during the referendum says far more about today’s left than it does about the European Union. There has been a great deal of myth-making concerning the latter –much of it funded, directly or indirectly, by the EU itself.

From its inception, the EU has been a top-down project driven by political and administrative elites, "a protected sphere", in the judgment of the late Peter Mair, "in which policy-making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy". To complain about the EU’s "democratic deficit" is to have misunderstood its purpose. The main thrust of European economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation, privatisation, and flexiblisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness.

Prospects for Keynesian reflationary policies, or even for pan-European economic planning – never great – soon gave way to more Hayekian conceptions. Hayek’s original insight, in The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism, was that free movement of capital, goods, and labour – a "single market" – among a federation of nations would severely and necessarily restrict the economic policy space available to individual members. Pro-European socialists, whose aim had been to acquire new supranational options for the regulation of capital, found themselves surrendering the tools they already possessed at home. The national road to socialism, or even to social democracy, was closed.

The direction of travel has been singular and unrelenting. To take one example, workers’ rights – a supposed EU strength – are steadily being eroded, as can be seen in landmark judgments by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Viking and Laval cases, among others. In both instances, workers attempting to strike in protest at plans to replace workers from one EU country with lower-wage workers from another, were told their right to strike could not infringe upon the "four freedoms" – free movement of capital, labour, goods, and services – established by the treaties.

More broadly, on trade, financial regulation, state aid, government purchasing, public service delivery, and more, any attempt to create a different kind of economy from inside the EU has largely been forestalled by competition policy or single market regulation.

A new political economy

Given that the UK will soon be escaping the EU, what opportunities might this afford? Three policy directions immediately stand out: public ownership, industrial strategy, and procurement. In each case, EU regulation previously stood in the way of promising left strategies. In each case, the political and economic returns from bold departures from neoliberal orthodoxy after Brexit could be substantial.

While not banned outright by EU law, public ownership is severely discouraged and disadvantaged by it. ECJ interpretation of Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has steadily eroded public ownership options. "The ECJ", argues law professor Danny Nicol, "appears to have constructed a one-way street in favour of private-sector provision: nationalised services are prima facie suspect and must be analysed for their necessity". Sure enough, the EU has been a significant driver of privatisation, functioning like a ratchet. It’s much easier for a member state to pursue the liberalisation of sectors than to secure their (re)nationalisation. Article 59 (TFEU) specifically allows the European Council and Parliament to liberalise services. Since the ‘80s, there have been single market programmes in energy, transport, postal services, telecommunications, education, and health.

Britain has long been an extreme outlier on privatisation, responsible for 40 per cent of the total assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996. Today, however, increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and the general sense of an impoverished public sphere are leading to growing calls for renewed public ownership (albeit in new, more democratic forms). Soon to be free of EU constraints, it’s time to explore an expanded and fundamentally reimagined UK public sector.

Next, Britain’s industrial production has been virtually flat since the late 1990s, with a yawning trade deficit in industrial goods. Any serious industrial strategy to address the structural weaknesses of UK manufacturing will rely on "state aid" – the nurturing of a next generation of companies through grants, interest and tax relief, guarantees, government holdings, and the provision of goods and services on a preferential basis.

Article 107 TFEU allows for state aid only if it is compatible with the internal market and does not distort competition, laying out the specific circumstances in which it could be lawful. Whether or not state aid meets these criteria is at the sole discretion of the Commission – and courts in member states are obligated to enforce the commission’s decisions. The Commission has adopted an approach that considers, among other things, the existence of market failure, the effectiveness of other options, and the impact on the market and competition, thereby allowing state aid only in exceptional circumstances.

For many parts of the UK, the challenges of industrial decline remain starkly present – entire communities are thrown on the scrap heap, with all the associated capital and carbon costs and wasted lives. It’s high time the left returned to the possibilities inherent in a proactive industrial strategy. A true community-sustaining industrial strategy would consist of the deliberate direction of capital to sectors, localities, and regions, so as to balance out market trends and prevent communities from falling into decay, while also ensuring the investment in research and development necessary to maintain a highly productive economy. Policy, in this vision, would function to re-deploy infrastructure, production facilities, and workers left unemployed because of a shutdown or increased automation.

In some cases, this might mean assistance to workers or localities to buy up facilities and keep them running under worker or community ownership. In other cases it might involve re-training workers for new skills and re-fitting facilities. A regional approach might help launch new enterprises that would eventually be spun off as worker or local community-owned firms, supporting the development of strong and vibrant network economies, perhaps on the basis of a Green New Deal. All of this will be possible post-Brexit, under a Corbyn government.

Lastly, there is procurement. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must "comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality". This means that all procurement contracts must be open to all bidders across the EU, and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries. In 2004, the European Parliament and Council issued two directives establishing the criteria governing such contracts: "lowest price only" and "most economically advantageous tender".

Unleashed from EU constraints, there are major opportunities for targeting large-scale public procurement to rebuild and transform communities, cities, and regions. The vision behind the celebrated Preston Model of community wealth building – inspired by the work of our own organisation, The Democracy Collaborative, in Cleveland, Ohio – leverages public procurement and the stabilising power of place-based anchor institutions (governments, hospitals, universities) to support rooted, participatory, democratic local economies built around multipliers. In this way, public funds can be made to do "double duty"; anchoring jobs and building community wealth, reversing long-term economic decline. This suggests the viability of a very different economic approach and potential for a winning political coalition, building support for a new socialist economics from the ground up.

With the prospect of a Corbyn government now tantalisingly close, it’s imperative that Labour reconciles its policy objectives in the Brexit negotiations with its plans for a radical economic transformation and redistribution of power and wealth. Only by pursuing strategies capable of re-establishing broad control over the national economy can Labour hope to manage the coming period of pain and dislocation following Brexit. Based on new institutions and approaches and the centrality of ownership and control, democracy, and participation, we should be busy assembling the tools and strategies that will allow departure from the EU to open up new political-economic horizons in Britain and bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs.

Joe Guinan is executive director of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative. Thomas M. Hanna is research director at The Democracy Collaborative.

This is an extract from a longer essay which appears in the inaugural edition of the IPPR Progressive Review.

 

 

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition