Formal political representation has changed little since the days when a only a minority voted, when rural representatives were days or weeks away from their electors and when government constituted a minor component of a nation's business, Indeed, the concept of 'sovereign nation' was still being formulated to general satisfaction when the democratic template was cut.
Democracies remain the 'least worst' way of running a complex society. At the same time, the processes which are entailed are weakly fitted to their ultimate purpose. Levels of anomie are high. Only 50.9% of those entitled to do so voted in the US November 2000 elections, similar to the 49% turnout in 1996. Only 17% of the young people entitled to vote did so.
This section considers what is entailed in representation in a democracy and asks whether it can be done better. The conclusion is that it can, drawing upon discussion shaped elsewhere in respect of the tasks of government and the nature of the policy formation process. Here, however, we have developed three sections. The first asks what it is that people want of a government: how they judge its performance. The second section considers the party system and asks whether it is a viable model. The third, highly speculative section, considers what might be designed, or - given the vested interest of party politicians to oppose such changes - what might evolve of itself.
This section is almost exclusively concerned with governance in the industrial world. Issues relevant to the development process are reviewed elsewhere. However, as Figure 1 shows, the expectations which people have of government - and the expectation which government has of itself - changes radically as states become both richer and more complex. The totalitarian experiments of the C20th (where the people were 'for' the advanced state to do with as it wished, to the collective glory) can be seen for what they were: a primitive state of development prolonged beyond its due. It is worth noting that something over 80% of C20th deaths in conflict were caused by states which attacked their own citizens.
Figure 1: Complexity-mediated change in the basic contract between the governed and the state.
The state in the complex societies is intended as the servant of the population. However, it is also the dominant force in these societies, and the paymaster of much of the population. It has to arbitrate over many disputes. It has to form policy on very complex and swiftly changing issues. In addition, the tasks of government have become distasteful to many, through their media exposure and the resulting limits to personal freedom, and no longer does "the office seek the man." The "man" is very much a career politician, whose entire life may be given over to seeking office. The obsessive nature of this form of careerism has obvious consequences. The US - always the home to political scandals of remarkable intensity - has seen a major decline in the respect in which government is held.
Figure 2: A long-tern decline in confidence in the US government.
The industrial democracies use a form of governance which has evolving from a model established around a century ago. It was itself founded on a much earlier oligarchic model, by which the gentry consulted each other before ordering the populace around. The chief purpose of elections was to determine who had power - and to set limits to it. What they did with that power could be criticised, but was made up after the event, in line with broad principles laid out in order to gain a mandate.
The party system amplified the worst features of this approach. It is the product of forced evolution around the imperatives of getting elected. In the absence of some overwhelming imperative, the party system simplifies complex issues into two or more styles, brands, personalities or sets of governing attitudes. The media conspire with this distillation, for its suits the needs of simplified communications. All of this suits career politicians and the political machine, but it is arguably a poor way to create policy, as well as a less than perfect means of representing - of expressing the concerns of - a heterogeneous electorate
Figure 3: A general decline in the confidence which people have of their representative bodies.
The sense that all is not well seems to be widespread. Figure 3 shows that only the Netherlands, Belgium (from a low base) and Italy (from yet lower) have improved their esteem with their electorates.
Figure 4 is adapted from a recent book edited by Robert Putnam, one of the more original thinkers in this area. Confidence is influenced by three factors: by the criteria which we use, by the information that we are fed and by the performance that we see of the representative institutions themselves.
Figure 4: Some of the factors that influence public confidence.
In turn, the performance of the representative institutions are thought to be defined by three components:
Elected representation has a complex muddle of tasks that it has inherited from history. It has to manage a set of routine processes and handle both managed change and crisis amongst these. This management has to be subjected to critique and to warring views as to the best way forward. In addition, elected representation is expected to resolve disputes and to frame current and prospective issues in ways that lead to informed public debate, and ultimately to informed consent when action is taken. There are, of course, a very wide range of additional tasks internal to government and in national representation abroad which must be added to this list. All of these tasks have to operate within the quality parameters that are set out in Figure 4
This is challenging. It is further confounded by two additional forces. First, the politicians who undertake these tasks operate under electoral imperatives. They cannot approach these issues in a fair-minded way, not least because they are bound with party strictures. Second, the have to work with a public which judges their performance around concepts and measures which are only loosely related to the primary tasks which were set out above.
The public seldom distinguish between many distinctive 'flavours' of government. There is, on the one hand, political representation, which equates to the effectiveness and behaviour of elected officials, the adequacy of discourse and the performance of the executive. We have just discussed this. On the other hand, however, the state impacts upon the lives of the electorate through a myriad of routine operations, as discussed elsewhere. These have a cumulative affect upon perceptions of competence.
In addition, attitudes towards government are heavily influenced by broader events in the economy and the society. Detailed models of the 'feel good' factor have been developed for most Western economies, and the key determinants of these tend to be only indirectly related to issues of strictly political representation. All of this is filtered through media commentary, party brand statements, distracting events and acts of nature, special interest critique and the like.
This pattern describes a loosely coupled system, which Figure 5 attempts to organise into a tractable form. At the hear of the figure are three fundamental roles: choosing, managing, explaining. In the ring around these are a host of tasks which are inalienable to complex societies, although done with variable competence in many of them. Loosely coupled to these are four outlying but deeply important factors. The performance of or compliance with these may conflict with the adequate delivery of the core tasks
Figure 5: Central tasks and peripheral distractions.
On the lower left, the state's major enterprises trundle on, interacting with independent features, such as commerce. This impacts on electoral understanding and interests, shown lower right. Also affecting these are media messages and distractions, shown upper right. The party political process - upper left - attempts to interact with every aspect of this diagram, but - from the point of view of the electorate - most particularly through attempts to manipulate information flows via the media, brand projection, ad hominem comment and more or less dirty tricks.
Figure 6 shows the two principle complaints levelled in a wide variety of states. However, when questioned in detail, people generally expressed unhappiness less with the delivery of government services than with the quality of governance. Once again, it is the Netherlands which seems to be one of the more content (and therefore, more appropriately governed) nations
Figure 6: Decrease public confidence in governance, 1970-95.
The roots of current discontent come from many sources. However, a central feature when all else is working is the sense that many have that the imperatives of representative government have more to do with the loosely coupled elements than they do with competence in amongst the central tasks. The party system - or the pursuit of power, however embedded in due process - creates a dynamic which leads to distrust, indirection, obscurity and, above all, a decoupling of the purposes of government from the purposes of the elected representatives within it. The consequences are not unlike those of corruption, but delivered for the benefit of a careerist group rather than individuals, and in a currency of influence rather than of specie.
To what else can the prevalent discontent be ascribed? We can ask whether - in the broadest objective terms - states have been delivering. Equally, we can examine the impact of the failure associated with the factors shown in Figure 4.
Figure 7: Evidence for weakening governance in the industrial states?
We can begin this enquiry by asking whether states have done a 'good job' in the round, then a jaundiced view could be summed up by Figure 7, which compared performance before and after 1973. Taxes have risen, but performance in everything but welfare provision has fallen
Moving on to the issue of the public impact of malfeasance, it is worth noting that florid corruption is relatively rare in the wealthy nations, for reasons which are explored elsewhere. However, those nations with the least reported corruption tend to be those with the highest levels of public content. Figure 8 shows how public dissatisfaction follows the level of public scandal in Japan. It is only after the economic stagnation of the late 1990s that dissatisfaction remains high without this prompt.
Figure 8: Corruption scandals and political dissatisfaction in Japan.
Social capital, the cohesion between institutions and the populace, commerce and others, may be weak or strong; but it may also be good or bad. On the left, a virtuous triad of transparent systems of correction and feedback interact with the machinery and trust and the delivery of adequate performance. On the right, closed systems which limit feedback interact with the opposite of trust and the manifestations of a predatory state, as discussed in Figure 1. Both of these show dense interconnectedness, both have strong institutions. There are, however, better and worse ways of doing this, and the discriminating factor seems to be access to information, and the existence of self-correcting systems that can make use of this.
Figure 9: Effective and inhibitory systems of social organisation.
Trust is an outcome, not a cause. We trust when we understand motives, when we see consistency between actions and these goals, and when we have some means of exercising sanctions when we detect a divergence. Transparent systems have many scrutineers and many systems of correction. They generate the grounds for trust. They also ensure that all available information is pooled and used when choices are made.
There is a small step beyond transparency to paralysis, however, and complex organisations have to careful not to take it. Open systems that can be vetoed at any stage in their process to closure will, where the stakes are high, never close. The growth of non-governmental organisations, lobby groups and informal systems of activism have grown immensely. These differ from systems in one crucial way: whilst information-managing structures such as markets do not 'care' which way they clear, lobby groups have their thumbs on the scales. The care intensely how things turn out, and they may be less than interested in the evidence or information that is one display.
We have discussed the difficulty which distinctive attitude groups may have towards what constitutes evidence elsewhere. The cosmologist Alan Guth, writing about his discovery of the possibility that the universe grew very rapidly in the early fractions of a second of its life, noted that it took particle physicists and cosmologists two days in face-to-face meetings before they were able to find a common language of debate. How much harder for the evidence-based policy brigade to find common ground with those who feel that "Mother Earth's soul is touched" when life is investigated by science.
As we have already discussed, party politics serve the needs of career politicians and the media. The origins of the party are murky, revolving around the networks of patronage and influence that devolved from absolute power.
Two fundamental assumptions are made when this structure is transplanted into representative democracy.
First, that the key issue is to impose popular leverage upon the political group which happens to be in power: the veto of the election, the empowerment of the opposition party. This is particularly true when the basis for differentiation between the parties is essentially one of brand, based on personality, style or a general reputation for competence or flair.
Second, that the electorate can be 'bundled' into the extremes of a dominant polarity from which everything in office can somehow be deduced. This assumption lies behind ideological ('commitment') politics. Where bundling can be applied to a class of people - to workers, elderly people, ethnic or religious groups - then issues of identity and ideology can become mixed together, often with fierce consequences.
The 'bipolar' model used to be true. The key polarity was concerned with access to power and resources, and simples societies made a simple issue of this. The 'haves' formed one camp and the 'want to haves' formed another. Suitably modulated for the middle ground and religion, this polarity has served most long standing democracies for a century. As an organising principle it has, however, rather run out of steam. Electorates have become too complex to bundle in this way. There is no single overwhelming issue - such as class warfare - which concerns them, but rather a large number of decoupled issues.
An individual may, for example, feel strongly about any one issue - about the environment, perhaps - but this fact is not a predictor that they will feel strongly about (or how they will feel about) another: for example, education. Three issues tend to preoccupy British electors, for example: health, education and security.
Figure 10: British voters do not 'bundle'.
The figure ranks colour codes voters for their concerns about public health (left). Retaining the same colour coding, the voters are then ranked for their concerns on education (centre) and security (right). A coherent public 'offer' around health would great a blue-green party and a red-yellow one. However, this clustering would be meaningless when applied to security, for example, meaning that such a policy for a political party would fail. As a consequence, each party has to occupy the centre ground if it is to win a sufficient weight in an election. Further, objective factors - such as evidence, economic theory, market disciplines and the like - define a practical middle ground which is identical for all governments.
A natural response to this is for the electorate to ask for general competence from national government, but to 'buy' supplementary representation' from activist organisations, rather than from political parties. The scale of this is very large: non-governmental organisations and charities spend as much of the GNP as did the state a hundred years ago. The growth in membership of NGOs and the scope of activism has increased in recent years, as figure 11 shows. Electronic activism and activism as a hobby or a means of gaining self-significance are everywhere bound to increase in intensity.
Figure 11: Increasing involvement in non-governmental agencies.
Such interests are not much represented in elected bodies, however, forcing them to offer analysis, to create media interest or in other ways to force attention. Some take direct action.
Earlier, we noted the danger to open and transparent processes from activism and veto. However, the existence of very plural, passionate interests in complex societies is not something that can or should be wished away. Until now, politicians have looked upon the activist as a combination of sentinel and public nuisance. Single issue national parties have seldom succeeded in getting themselves elected and, where they have done so, have proven less than effective. Indeed, lobby groups tend to fight their own members once in power and descend into ideological battle. However, that a group is ineffectual does not mean that its supporter base are anything but disenfranchised by centrist political parties.
Where might these systems evolve? A range of independent factors are at work
First, political parties are forced to the bland centre ground. In order to gain enough votes to form a national party of any weight, they have to avoid offending anyone, whilst offering as few hostages to fortune as they may. Further, they must conform with a growing body of best practice, the concerns of peer nations, allies and assorted slowly moving systems over which they have no control. As it is impossible to differentiate on policy, the party brand must be focused on 'tone' and style, a reputation for competence and on personality. Knocking these features in the rival brand is essential.
Second, electorates are becoming more plural, more educated and more prone to enthusiasms with political implications. They feed these with contributions to pressure groups. The electorate may tend to separate out specific issues from the provision of general backdrop best practice (although one person's backdrop is another's centre stage.)
Third, electoral discontent seems innately bound up in the necessities of the party political process. What politicians have to do to get elected and to manage the media is the exact source of our discontent with them. Indeed, although the idea of a political class has changed hugely since the C19th, the existence of such a body has not. It may be increasingly anachronistic to maintain this structure.
Fourth, the structure of government is becoming more like a network, with expert agencies of state and subsidiary government expected to play - if not yet actually playing - and important role. Policy, which was once formed by opposition parties whilst out of office, now must be expected to emerge from these expert bodies, for best practice in other countries and similar sources.
Fifth, the issues over which these expert bodies will preside will tend to become further and further removed from the common sense understanding of the electorate unless active measures are taken to halt this. Trust in generic government ("let us manage it on your behalf") will be lost. Activism will focus on the nodes of the state where the exotic issues are most prominent. Paralysis may well follow.
Sixth, and little discussed so far, the media play an immense role in creating and modulating public debate. There are three things to say about these entities.
We face a future in which a large number of formal and informal institutional structures have to work together. Any one of these can inhibit any of the others if its protagonists feel strongly enough. The executive and parliamentary chambers, the legal system and the media, expert and regulatory bodies, pressure groups and focused opinion are all replicated at may levels of scale. All tend to interconnect in some way. Each have massive internal connections with further complicate the issue. What we want from this system is a credible system of decision taking which levels expert tools at well defined issues, having taken due regard of many voices and having consciously dismissed some of these.
This is not a win-or-lose structure, but something much more complex. Such structures are commonplace in biology, in ecology, in natural physical systems and in economics. They reach closure through equilibria negotiated by many small steps. They seldom take all-or-nothing leaps. More sophisticated systems rather work to alter the rule base on which they operate, so as to avoid traps and seek optima. However, we have structured our public government processes to be unambiguous mechanisms for deciding winners and losers, not as a means of subtle probing for good answers to complicated questions. Single votes make or break history. For example
How are we to go forward, with the baggage of a simpler world on our backs and the dogs of change at our heels? The huge complexity of the multi-agency, multi-layered expert system of governance has been discussed elsewhere. Where the matter is strictly concerned with managing these systems towards adaptive outcomes, then the issues are similar to the problems which face the management of large organisations. These managers cannot solve complexity directly, all by themselves: rather, they have to set the conditions within which it is solved, or solves itself. They need to analyse the system that they manage so as to delegate as much as possible to expert, self-governing bodies on which they can place achievement targets. They need to pick the right people and processes. They need to exercise oversight on process, performance and probity. More generally, they need to create a foresighted synthesis of what is happening and what might be done, and to use this to synchronise internal option generation and performance, as well as to create enthusiasm and conviction elsewhere.
The public sector is, however, innately adversarial. It operates to overlapping agendae set by individual careers, by ideology and by strict representational issues, both of the public good and sectoral interest which is deemed to have 'won'.
There are, therefore, two key questions
First, how can the state handle its policy processes better, so as to capture the advantages of contribution and process efficiency that have been discussed above? The answer to this is, essentially, self-evident, although it requires a great deal of work and suggests a means of operating which is far from present practice. The shape of what is required is discussed below.
The second question is, however, poses less tractable issues. How is adversariality to be better handled in the processes of public management? The party system is deeply flawed. Nations are presented with 'decorative' brands, common generic policies dreamed up to meet issue profiles and media convenience, historical segmentation of responsibility and a vague sense of party tradition. The electoral process amplifies all that is weak in this structure. The party that forms the executive assumes a mandate to extrapolate vague differences into specific policy, and all-or-nothing decisions are taken based upon fragile debate, weak postulates and media management. These weaknesses lie at the heart of the ills which democracies currently suffer.
Adversariality will not go away. Indeed, it will intensify, for the reasons that we have discussed. The nature of the intensification is, however, novel: people may be less desperate than in history, but they have more focused interests, they are more professional as advocates and they have stronger tools at their disposal. This will be a battle of a myriad of small wounds, not the clash of two great swords. It will be waged in courts and the supervisory boards of regulatory agencies, in the communications media and think tanks, in the electronic universe and in the minds of the electorate. It will place elected officials on the permanent defensive, where the general pace of change will anyway pin them.
Central legislative structures are already overloaded, and this work load will continue to intensify. What is needed - and which is unlikely to evolve of itself - is the separation of the executive from the strategic. Most parliamentary structures have two chambers, and virtually all states have subsidiary systems of governance. Virtually all have devolved agencies and regulatory bodies to act as the arms of the central state. The national chambers need to take on explicit roles: one might take a 'national' view, the other represent subsidiary or expert interests, for example. There are many other 'cuts' that would invite different perspectives to play upon the issues before them. Subsidiary government will become more strategic, in the sense of explaining itself to central government and winning permission for independent action on the basis of conceptual guidelines which it creates for itself. Once again, issues will be structured and developed amongst experts and interested parties, whilst the central state co-ordinates, watches for obsessions and imbalance.
What could be the consequences of this? For a start, focused interests acquire equally focused centres for debate. Their legitimacy descends from their 'making sense' both to those involved and to outsiders, such as national-level politicians. Here, 'making sense' comprises a world view around which there is some contention of interpretation and action, but which nevertheless represents a point of view that virtually all regard as broadly sensible. The extreme views have been marginalised and a consensus way forward has been reached, boiling down attitude and expertise into a dialog
Second, the expert 'nodes' would consult each other where their interests impinged. A subtle, shock-resistant structure would develop. It would propagate best practice. It should identify long term issues and suggest meaningful policy measures, which would compete with other appeals for resource on the basis of their 'making sense'. This brings us close to the management for the knowledge economy, noted above. It creates the framework within which complex new issues - of which the future will deliver many examples - are worked through in a policy and application community before being made accessible to the public at large in a digestible form. Expert media, for example, can advice the general media how to handle a news story when these have been serving focused communities for some time.
National level party politics will not fade away, as there is no incentive to those who are in power to change it. However, the existence of multiple routes to power - and the need for those in the centre less to act than to co-ordinate - may well come to blunt some of the problems which we have discussed. Those who seek executive power would find it mostly concerned with the management of people and ideas, whilst those concerned with 'policy' would find that they had little direct power. Parliamentary bodies would stand guard over process, probity and performance, but would do so without much input to either policy or execution. Different people would suit each role, and effective cultural diversity would come into the political system. The current mono-culture of career election-winners would be replaced by many kinds of people needed to fit many kinds of elective space.
Will such a structure come into existence? It is likely to develop first in the smaller nations, and we would expect it to develop first in the 'systems rationalist' countries discussed elsewhere. Many are well developed down this route without, perhaps, conscious design, and it is perhaps unsurprising that these nations score highly for social trust, social capital, general levels of content and economic performance.
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