Friday, 2 October 2009

Getting the word out is no longer enough when it comes to government. We need to feel more connected to the places where information is processed and decisions are made. The media-massagers, the party-line-pure politicians, the evasive answers in the face of a questioning media scrum - all these things only serve to undermine the influence of those who pretend to wield it. Government cannot work without the consent of the governed.

Look at Aboriginal dysfunction for an example of negligent disenfranchisement. Millions of dollars are poured into settlements, think-tanks and pundits expend reams of verbiage, policies are cobbled together from piles of policy and larger piles of reports. But the situation does not change because the terms of engagement are distasteful to those who would benefit: the Aborigines themselves.

Aborigines still die earlier, live unhealthier, are jailed more frequently, than the average Australian. Why? Because they won't 'take on-board' responsibility for their own actions, in the stern language of managerialism that characterises interactions between those in power. Aborigines are distrustful of this type of language and don't cooperate. They wilfully don't 'get with the plan'.

They don't feel included in the national dialog and it's the often same with the citizenry at large.

Taxes are paid grudgingly. Politicians are distrusted. Tabloid newspapers are filled with floppy journalism because the people who buy them cannot stand the tenor of public 'debate' in the broadsheets. People feel excluded. They ignore policies that are expressly designed to govern their lives, improve their lot, and help them to reach their potential as active members of society. We've lost them before the talk becomes interesting. How do we address this issue?

Transparency is lacking. We feel that it's all 'spin'. We want to see the machine at work, and understand it, so that we can engage meaningfully with it. It's the same with the journalistic process, too. We don't trust journalists, either.

Social media, which helps to break down the barriers that exist between the producer and the consumer in a large, segmented society, could be the answer to this fatal disconnect. We live in tribes but we're asked to act as a nation. Tribal languages are not enough to bridge divides. We need something more compelling, more classically 'human' to guide us as we negotiate the fraught spaces that separate us.

A Nieman Journalism Lab article says that "transparency is the new objectivity" for journalism. The appeal made in the article exists in the context of moves by major newspapers to limit how their journalists use social networking like Twitter. The main culprit in this case is the Washington Post, which has so savagely gagged a senior editor that he closed his Twitter account. Mathew Ingram, who wrote the piece, says that the paper is cutting off its nose to spite its face.

But he says more than that. In a highly-connected world it doesn't matter if you have opinions, he says. It doesn't matter if a reader knows that you have a personal opinion about health care or Isreali security barriers. The times have changed and it's time to move out of the ivory tower into digs alongside readers.

It may even be a 'good thing' to have opinions that are publicly visible. This gives us all a way to 'bridge the divide' that separates tribe from tribe.

Some politicians, like federal Australian Senator Kate Lundy and New South Wales senator Penny Sharpe, are eager to relocate their operations from the ivory tower to the public square, but they are fighting a rear-guard action by their less-wired colleagues.

There are a few politicians with Twitter accounts, and some take it more to heart than others. But the real problem is that the whole system is stuck in the distant past before social networking existed. Traditional methods of communication may simply not be enough any more. They do not allow us to cross over the bridge separating one tribe from another.

They similarly do not give us the emotional context we need to make decisions in a world where information overload is the norm. To take on-board all the information produced about contemporary 'issues' we need help. Traditional media is not helping. Traditional government and its ways of interacting with the governed does not help. We need more information, not less, but information of a different kind.

Journalists who use the new methods of communication are uniquely positioned to help us communicate. But the government must do more to bring its thinking down to a level we can cope with, in a form we can handle, without 'dumbing down' debate. God knows, it's dumb enough already!

We now have experiments in online voting in Australia, notably that initiated by NSW Labor MP Paul Mcleay in his Sydney electorate of Heathcote. Sure, it's not a 'real' poll because it's only to judge the merit by popularity of suggestions for the expenditure of anti-GFC money. But it's a start.

The thing is that in order to trust politicians and journalists in a world where we're always connected to the social graph, we need to be able to 'get a feel' for what type of people they are. It's not enough to know that they act, when they appear in public, like the professionals we hope they are.

The problem came home to me yesterday when I decided to pay attention to a Senate Select Committee on the National Broadband Network, being held in Canberra. As I sat there watching proceedings on the tiny screen, I felt like an outsider.

The experience was not satisfying because the 'system' delivers this podcast to me grudgingly. It is as if it were a favour granted to the political junkies out there who might know, for example, the difference between a senate select committee and a joint standing committee. It didn't feel like participatory democracy.

The screen is small, to start with. There are no captions, so you don't know who is speaking. The sound is not very good. Those participating do not seem to know that you are watching. It's all a bit grungy and back-room.

And while the mode of communication alienated me, I still found it fascinating. I just had to take a few minutes to try to understand what was happening. I needed to feel the love or, to be more exact, the lack of it. We are always interested when conflict occurs. Newspapers play on this fallibility all the time. But there needs to be a way to bring underlying conflicts into the debate, so that we can all participate freely and equally.

Watching the committee at work allowed me to see the underlying conflict in action, and this immediacy, this affective interaction, appealed to me straight away. It allowed me to apply my existing narratives of right and wrong, conditioned over a lifetime and over millenia, to a topical debate. The national benefit is being debated within the context of representative democracy - a system of government founded on conflict - and the adjacent narratives of good and bad are now contextualising the issues for me, helping me to decide and to separate right from wrong.

Transparency is a manifest right, ie a 'good thing'. Obfuscatory bureaucrats are 'bad'. But are they? What about the basis of democracy in conflict? By perceiving the conflict behind government, I am able to empathise with all players. Politicians are no longer just people who try to tell me what to think and do. They are individuals who must deal with difficult problems, such as access to administrative data, as they move forward their policies and ideas.

So I engage with Senator Lundy. I even engage with Liberal Senator Macdonald of Queensland. This surprises me, but my empathetic response also helps me to engage with the debate. It makes everything 'real' and so I decide to have an opinion on something that otherwise might just be a media beat-up.

The goal of the committee, which comprises both Liberal and Labor senators, is to find out whether the administration is spending wisely the large amount of money earmarked for the planned high-speed broadband network that promises to revolutionise the online experience in Australia. To find out, the senators - sitting on one side of the room - ask questions of the bureaucrats - sitting on the other.

First came the experts, giving their opinions about this, that and the other aspect of the network. Proceedings started to get really interesting, however, only when the high-powered bureaucrats entered the ring. Treasury officials, Prime Minister and Cabinet officials, Auditor's Office officials. These men and women are the real powers behind policy, and you could feel the pressure rise in the small chamber as the debate heated up.

The drama became evident and I empathised with all players. I started to think: 'what if that was me?' How would I handle being asked questions that I didn't want to answer. How would I feel if I was asking questions and being told that I would not get a reply?

Senators have no powers to coerce compliance in the chamber. In other words, a bureaucrat can choose not to answer a question if it has certain characteristics. I now know that I need to learn more about the terms of conduct in such chambers. This unwillingness of bureaucrats to talk, and the senators' attempts to ellicit information, is real drama.

We all need to be more aware of the issues and of the processes that govern such exchanges as I saw yesterday. This kind of session can be thrillingly interesting if we are engaged with it in a meaningful way. We watch senators on the Right of politics try to get information out of bureaucrats appointed by the Left of politics. We watch Senator Lundy - an avowed geek - ask questions about transparency and be told that they will have to take the question 'on notice'.

The action goes on endlessly, and it's enthralling. Given a few dollars and some technicians and designers, this kind of TV could become a staple for Joe Normal of Liverpool as well as the junkie who loves reading Hansard.

It's a matter of will. But the time is coming when we will want to see the levers of power being exercised - as they were today - rather than just waiting to be spoon-fed mouthfuls of indigestible pap by highly-paid and untrustworthy back-room spin-doctors.

If career politicians are the problem with government, as Griffith University academic Noel Preston says, because they distort the political process, then more scrutiny will bring the charlatans to light and reward the genuine men and women who really are trying to make a difference. It will separate the abusers from the worthy.

Increased scrutiny is possible with digital technologies. We just have to realise the fact and ask to have more access to the workings of government. Similarly, newspapers have to realise their enormous wealth of expertise and give us the stories that we want, not pour out scads of useless, event-driven rubbish that does not satisfy. Let's have some commentary on today's senate select committee, please!

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