Political Intermediaries – Translating Technological Advances Into Government Policy

Culture is a “soft” kind of power: it greatly influences and shapes society, but rarely makes the “hard” decisions that will immediately effect changes in how people live. Governments, on the other hand, deploy this “hard” power through the policies they enact, and as such can have great impact on the lives of citizens in the everyday sense. For this reason it is interesting to see what governments are thinking about new technologies, and how changes in technologies are affecting their overarching partisan philosophies.

In response to yesterday’s post on cultural intermediaries, a friend directed me to a 14-minute online presentation by British Leader of the Opposition David Cameron titled “The Next Age of Government” (thanks, Jeff!). Watch it here on TED.com, and if you haven’t spent much time on TED.com, this is also a great opportunity to look around a bit. It’s a fantastic site. Mr. Cameron, while no Benjamin Disraeli, is a thoughtful and relatively engaging speaker who seems to be able to abstract himself from the day-to-day granularity of politics and comment on a few “big ideas.”

He begins by asking how “we” can make things better without spending more money, and notes that there are many factors affecting “well-being,” including family, achievement, values, etc. that are outside of things the government controls (such as health care spending). He then posits that we are living today in the “post-bureaucratic age,” after many years of “pre-bureaucratic,” or local, control and “bureaucratic,” or central, control by the government or other powers that be. I was interested to note that advances in technology – primarily in the form of improvements in travel and communications – were essential in demarcating these ages. His point was that the role of government has changed – from overseeing and running all major programmes simply because it could, and was the only organization that could, to being in a position to give citizens information and let them make their own decisions.

His basic premise is that knowledge (brought by technology) equals power, and not just power for the government, but for ordinary people. He cleverly and seamlessly incorporates the benefits of technological innovation (transparency, choice) into the classic conservative mantra of personal accountability. His message is not, “The government is collecting all your information to be a kind of Big Brother and watch over you,” as Gordon Brown and Labour are perceived right now; it’s, “We are going to give you all this information so you can run with it and make your own choices. Go ahead: challenge our existing supplier agreements if you can do better. We’ll tell you which hospitals have the best wait times so you can go there. You’ll know where lots of crime is occurring – avoid those areas.” And he sums it all up with a classic quotation from JFK: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

It’s a masterful display of euphemism, because while he is giving all of this power to the people, he is simultaneously and deliberately not saying, “And if you don’t avoid the areas where crime is most frequently occurring, and you are assaulted, it is very much your own fault.” This, of course, is the flip side of less government and more “power to the people,” as he says:  responsibility of the people. It is also an inherently capitalistic idea, in that it encourages competition among government services like hospitals and police departments to be the safest, fastest, best at controlling infection outbreaks, whatever – another core tenet of conservatism. It’s remarkable how well these messages blend into Mr. Cameron’s presentation, which on the surface is all about intermediaries. Instead of government being the instigator of action, David Cameron wants it to be an intermediary; a broker between services and citizens. It’s a fundamental shift in how government is viewed. We will see later this year if Britons agree with this shift.

I suspect this is where Barack Obama is going wrong today. He is trying to fuse these two ideas – the oversight of government and the responsibility of the people – and in doing so is peddling an inconsistent message. His unprecedented spending on health care and stimulus measures is well known, and violently opposed by the Tea Party movement, most Republicans, and even many Democrats and Independents. Again and again his opponents call for smaller government, less public money being spent – in other words, how the government can make things better without spending more money.

It’s not easy. But many of the technological innovations and initiatives David Cameron pointed to as critical for the “post-bureaucratic age” (transparency, choice and most importantly, lots and lots of information) are already in place in the United States. Perhaps Mr. Obama should shift his message back to what he said in his November 2008 victory speech:

“[Change] can’t happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice. So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other.”

What do you think? Is government’s role in the modern age as a provider and overseer, or as an intermediary? Do you buy David Cameron’s argument? Are we really living in a “post-bureaucratic” age? And if so, isn’t there a better name for it?

One Response to Political Intermediaries – Translating Technological Advances Into Government Policy

  1. […] leanings, and seeks to decrease the role of the state in favour of individual accountability (much like David Cameron does). It’s fascinating to read a defence of this viewpoint from the perspective of the public […]

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