On the first day of his presidency in January 2009 Barack Obama signed a memorandum committing his administration to open government. In Australia the federal government followed suit with a declaration in July 2010. Now, following on from a U.S. initiative, an Open Government Summit is being held in Australia, focusing on local government – the level closest to the people. In time this summit may come to be seen as a modern day addition to Australia’s early 20th century reputation as a world leader in democracy, an egalitarian social laboratory.
The idea of open government, with its principles of transparency, participation and collaboration, has been around a long time. Many talk about it, but deep down, few believe in it. The dilemma is the craving politicians and bureaucrats at all levels of government have for control, for certainty. As John Ralston Saul has said “a citizen-based democracy is built upon participation, which is the very expression of permanent discomfort.”
Misunderstanding, ignorance, apathy, disillusionment and hostility towards government are widespread throughout Australia and much of the Western democratic world. This creeping malaise, eating away at society, is strong at the local government level, where reforms throughout Australia in the 1990s focused on corporate governance – management efficiencies, cost saving and improved service delivery. Citizens became customers.
Many people think roads, rates and rubbish when they think of their council but local government has much broader functions than this, including a major role in promoting community wellbeing, which is built from the foundations of good governance and active citizenship. An active citizen is someone who believes in the idea of a democratic society and will participate to take that belief into action. Participation is problematic in our individualistic, consumerist society where many people’s socialisation leads them to look inwards for their life’s satisfactions. Check out the numbers in your local P&C or progress association.
Despite this disconnect there is something about the local in local government that often arouses passions and protective interests. People may say they hate the bastards they elected, “but at least they’re our bastards,” even if they are largely unknown. And after decades of rationalisation and the withdrawal of services from local communities most people still know where the council chambers are.
Hugh Mackay, the respected social researcher, has recently noted the number one desire of Australian people is to be taken seriously. To be acknowledged, recognised, appreciated and valued sits at the top of a list including the desire for control, for love and for something to believe in. So there is an opportunity here at the local level. By building on the protective instincts found locally, the desire to be taken seriously can be met, while tackling the disconnect between people and their governments.
Deliberative democracy, a proactive process for large or small groups of citizens to engage in the policy decision-making process, provides the opportunity. Deliberative democracy is fair and open public deliberation about the pros and cons of competing policy choices. Deliberation means careful consideration before decision – the antithesis of most people’s experiences of making choices in the political arena. In deliberation people take note of and question expert opinion and share their personal views while aiming to find common ground. Decision-making follows reasoned and respectful discussion. Self-interest is put aside as the consequences of different options are explored and the common good prevails.
The other keys to deliberative democracy are the capacity to influence decision-making – the process needs to take place before decisions are made – and the representatives of the group – which can be addressed by random selection, ensuring a group goes beyond the usual suspects. Deliberative polls, 21st century town meetings, citizen’s juries and participatory budgeting are well known deliberative democracy methods.
Deliberation enhances the legitimacy of decisions because a range of people have participated in the decision, not a single or select few decision makers. There is ample evidence of high levels of trust and satisfaction with deliberative processes and outcomes. Many people are keen to participate, to deliberate, when they think it matters. Lyn Carson, a leader in Australian deliberative democracy, says that participation is like an unused muscle, it atrophies, and so with adequate exercise it can be strengthened.
Deliberative democracy will not replace representative democracy, which is based on formal voting and the secrecy of the ballot box, but it can provide support. Increased participation through deliberative processes will start to reverse the disengagement and strengthen citizenship. So, back to the laboratory for experimentation with deliberative democracy at the local government level. Start with the small but important things and let people rise to the challenge. Sealing of unpaved roads, parking problems and solutions in congested tourist towns, waste management in a time of increased costs and shortage of landfill sites, participatory budgeting.
Sure it will cost, but there will be untold benefits from an engaged population. These benefits may flow on throughout civil society. Deliberative habits, once learned, can be applied to daily interactions between councils and communities, not just held for full deliberative democracy processes. We might see a brake on the dysfunction and political grandstanding that dogs some councils. Fewer councils might get sacked. The community, which has allowed itself to be seduced into the easy way out of cynicism and distrust, must take some responsibility for the democratic deficit that has arisen, and demand a seat at the big decision making table. This is too important to be left to any level of government, even the local council.