Local government should be local

An article in Comment is Free suggests that French local government shares one of the problems of British local government: no-one takes its elections seriously.

The idea that local government elections are a referendum on national parties is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and in a time when the London- or Paris-based media are reducing coverage of policy in favour of covering the horse race, it’s a reflection of wider media trends.

It’s also very damaging, particularly to the morale and quality of local government councillors. What message does it send to them, when the performance of the Prime Minister has a bigger effect on their election chances than anything they might do?

You might hope that the rise of blogging and more local commentary would help, but many political blogs are given over to commentary on national media and personality issues, rather than discussion of local politics.

Credulous Bayesians

An HIER paper by Glaeser and Sunstein suggests that people are

Credulous Bayesians, who insufficiently adjust for idiosyncratic features of particular environments and put excessive weight on the statements of others where there are 1) common sources of information; 2) highly unrepresentative group membership; 3) statements that are made to obtain approval; and 4) statements that are designed to manipulate. Credulous Bayesianism can produce extremism and significant blunders.

The paper “discusses the implications of Credulous Bayesianism for law and politics, including media policy and cognitive diversity on administrative agencies and courts”.

(Note that the PDF incorrectly describes the paper as a preliminary draft.)

Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem

A new book on the US voting system, reviewed by Salon, looks at Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem – “There is no consistent method by which a democratic society can make a choice (when voting) that is always fair when that choice must be made from among 3 or more alternatives.” It considers alternative voting systems that could be used to improve the fairness of US election results.

Flat Earth News

An interesting new book is out, called Flat Earth News. It accuses journalists of sloppy research and poor fact-checking – essentially, of letting down the entire purpose of their profession. These are obviously serious allegations, for all the cynicism about journalism makes them seem everyday. They are all the more serious because they are based on academic research rather than a politically partisan viewpoint.

The author, Nick Davies, makes his case in this piece on Comment is Free. Roy Greenslade, in his blog at the Guardian, collates some of the reviews and reactions.

Greater transparency has damaged MPs’ standing – Kelly

Chris Kelly, the former civil servant who heads the Parliamentary standards watchdog, has criticised Derek Conway for paying his son a sinecure salary out of public money. The Observer reports him as saying:

“I think that this episode will have damaged the reputation of MPs generally and that is more than unfortunate. … The incident has added to the general feeling that there is something wrong, when the great majority of MPs go about their work with diligence and integrity. Perceptions clearly have not improved. Ironically that may be because there is now more transparency than there has ever been.”

The question Kelly raises is a good one: have MPs made rods for their own backs by embracing more transparency in funding arrangements? Conway is perhaps an outlier, as his scandal is about misuse of public money rather than financial reporting arrangements, but there is a strong sense that ten years ago, many of the transactions that now make headlines would have happened under the table, without anyone knowing about them. In an intellectual sense, more openness in a democracy is naturally better than less – but what if the price is state funding of political parties or further erosion of trust in politicians?

Community Contracts: are they a route to disappointment?

The UK’s Department for Communities and Local Government has published a guidance document on creating local charters (also called community contracts). These are arrangements between local communities and public sector service providers, containing promises from both sides on service standards and tailored service provision. In other words, charters are deals between the state and its agencies on one side, and some group representative of the People on the other side.

This initiative – one pilot is just down the road from the Society in Brighton – is of a piece with the Government’s wider agenda around making services more responsive to local wishes. On a philosophical level, this is obviously the right thing to do, but there is a risk that the consumerist approach to local government has over-reached itself here.

There are two problems. Neighbourhood charters are written documents, and as such need to be drafted and amended, and the question arises: by whom? It’s not realistic to expect more than a tiny proportion of an area’s population to get involved in detailed issues, or even to participate in meaningful consultation. This is not an enormous problem on the scale of a town or city, where even 1% of the population might be several hundred people, and where resources exist to manage focus groups, citizens’ panels, and so on. When the area of coverage shrinks to a couple of thousand, you can get serious problems with how representative the representatives of the community really are. In Groucho Marx mode, the people who want to draft the charter are the last people who should draft the charter.

Second, what will the charter do? There are a few examples in the Government’s guidance, but they are quite technocratic and the claimed benefits are either “improving understanding of how services are delivered”, which is not the same as changing them, or gaining support for the drafting process itself, which is not the same as delivering change that people can recognize.

It’s early days, of course, and this might work well in some areas. The worry is, though, that by setting up consumerist expectations that just can’t be delivered, charters will increase disillusion with government rather than reduce it. “Don’t promise what you can’t do” should be the motto of all government efforts at citizen service design, and this initiative is a standing invitation to do just that.

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