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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White people feel they can’t influence

Interesting results from the DCLG citizenship survey reported by the BBC. It asked people how much they felt able to influence politics, and white people felt much less able to influence than minority groups.

Some 19% of white people agreed they had a say, compared with 33% of other groups

The survey in full.

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Matthew Taylor on modern malaise

The New Statesman this week has an interesting article by Matthew Taylor, former No. 10 policy wonk and now RSA head man. In it, he talks of the effect that the decline of collectivist culture (political parties, trade unions, etc.) has had on the prospects for political optimism.

The key paragraph (from our point of view):

The old collectivism is dead or dying. Its characteristics – hierarchical, bureaucratic, paternalistic – are no longer suited to the challenges or the mood of the times. The institutions of the new collectivism must be devolved, pluralistic, egalitarian and, most of all, self-actualising.

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