Thursday 17 September 2009

"Government 2.0" - Returning Power to the Community

Participatory Democracy: In Venezuela the government of Hugo Chavez has fostered the growth of Consejos Comunales - Communal Councils - in an attempt to bypass the formal, state-run bureaucratic structures responsible for administering (badly) the country's rudimentary welfare system. Western welfare systems might also benefit from the competitive challenge of democratic, community-organised service delivery.

FOR NEARLY THIRTY YEARS NOW, and in every country where it succeeded in constructing one, the Left has struggled to defend the Welfare State. For the most part Leftists have campaigned not for the Welfare State as it is, but for the Welfare State as they meant it to be. It’s been a losing strategy. There is simply no sense in battling for a dream, if it means ignoring an increasingly nightmarish reality. In the end, the urgency of ending the nightmare overwhelms the longing to save the dream.

Just how nightmarish the reality of the modern welfare state has become is clearly evident in the places that were intended to be its most potent and persuasive expression: public housing projects. In the sunny optimism of the early post-war era these municipal- and state-facilitated developments were envisaged as islands of rational planning and design in a sea of privately organised squalor.

In Britain’s "new towns", America’s "projects", and New Zealand’s state-house suburbs there was, to quote the rhapsodic rhetoric of New Zealand’s National Film Unit, "space for sunlight". Seventy years on, the reality is immeasurably darker. Where they still exist (many having been, quite literally, blown-up) these vast experiments in public housing have become by-words for appalling social dysfunction.

Built to free the poor from the rack-renting private landlord, social housing swiftly degenerated into a convenient spatial fix for the problem of how to keep the races and classes separate. By herding the lowest of the low into discrete geographical corrals, and maintaining them out of the public purse, the upwardly mobile sectors of post-war capitalist society (and their rising incomes) were made available to the private sector.

What the architects of the Welfare State had confidently predicted would become the benchmarks for rational and socially uplifting urban living, rapidly degenerated into their opposite. High-rise ghettos for the frail and impecunious; or sprawling internment camps for the immigrant labour which now performed the tasks that "white men" wouldn’t do; it made little difference: public housing was something to flee.

I see it every time I go for a walk around my neighbourhood.

The state-housing developments in the Auckland suburb of Three Kings were among the very first to be constructed, and in their day (the late-1930s) they far outstripped the low-cost efforts of private developers. By the 1960s and 70s, however, Three Kings was characterised colourfully by National Party canvassers as "Tiger Country": one of those places where geography and class combined to render middle-class proselytising next-to-impossible.

It’s a lot easier now. Thanks to National’s 1990s policy of selling-off a significant proportion of the nation’s public housing stock, Three Kings is being transformed. The bleak uniformity of the old publicly-owned subdivision is steadily giving way to the remodelled, repainted and tastefully landscaped effects of state-house gentrification. In the last election, for the first time, National’s Party Vote in the Mt Roskill electorate exceeded Labour’s.

Why did the state fail so spectacularly to live up to the expectations of those optimistic social-democrats (and socialists) who entrusted it with the citizenry’s welfare? The answer lies in what might be described as the "authoritarian personality" of state-run institutions – they are totally obsessed with the exercise of power and control.

This is hardly surprising – given that the state itself is, fundamentally, a coercive political instrument. Regardless of whether it directs the activities of a capitalist, socialist, or "mixed" economy, the state’s coercive instincts render it utterly unwilling to entrust the running of its institutions to the citizens they’re intended to serve. Public housing projects in the Soviet Bloc were as bleak and unresponsive to their tenants aspirations as any London "Council Estate" or New Zealand state-house suburb.

Tim O’Reilly, the founder and CEO of the computer book publisher O’Reilly Media, and the man who, in 2004, coined the expression "Web 2.0", would probably refer to the instrumental state – its basic functioning modelled on the machine – as "Government 1.0".

As he argues in "It’s All About The Platform", a guest posting on the TechCrunch website: "Too often, we think of government as a kind of vending machine. We put in our taxes, and get out services: roads, bridges, hospitals, fire brigades, police protection … And when the vending machine doesn’t give us what we want, we protest. Our idea of citizen engagement has somehow been reduced to shaking the vending machine."

While O’Reilly’s focus is predominantly on the IT aspects of government/citizen interaction, his deep understanding of the architecture of complex computer software has given him a new and very interesting perspective on the political architecture for the state.

"Imagine if the [state] were to re-imagine itself not as a vending machine but as an organising engine for civic action … Can we imagine a new compact between government and the public, in which government puts in place mechanisms for services that are delivered not by government, but by private citizens? In other words, can government become a platform?"

Could this "government-as-platform" idea constitute the kernel of a new left-wing dream? After all, it’s a reasonably straightforward matter these days to set up a commercial company on-line, so why not a community-based organisation dedicated to looking after the more vulnerable individuals and families in one’s neighbourhood – up to and including the construction of pensioner and other specialised housing stock?

The state would provide the basic resources (premises, plant and labour) but subject to the general organisational rules and auditing requirements laid-down by Parliament, the deployment of those resources would be undertaken locally and, most importantly, democratically.

Not surprisingly – when you consider who has been on the receiving end of the welfare nightmare these past fifty years – Maori New Zealanders are already leading the way with this mode of community-based service delivery, but there’s nothing to stop the rest of New Zealand society from joining them. The REACs (Regional Employment & Access Councils) of the late-1980s stand as a tentative (if disappointingly undemocratic) precedent.

Social welfare was supposed to free the citizen from the tutelage of private power, but ended up replacing the limited domination of the boss and the landlord with the absolute authority of the state. "Government 2.0" offers to restore the link between Liberty and Progress. If it was only willing to shake off the nightmare of the authoritarian state, what couldn’t a Libertarian Left dream into existence?

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 17 September 2009.


solatnz said...

I've been wondering if the appropriate economic model to empower Government 2.0 is the "distributed capitalism" advocated by binary economists and neo-distributists.

I would be interested in your thoughts, Chris.

Chris Trotter said...

I think the advocates of "distributed capitalism" and I are currently on the same road, SubversNZ, but possibly heading for different destinations.

For those who would like to know more about the ideas SubversNZ alludes to, I'd suggest the following book:

"The Support Economy: Why Corporations Are Failing Individuals And The Next Episode of Capitalism", by Shoshana Zuboff & James Maxmin (copies available at Amazon).

Or you can go to this location

and listen to the authors discuss their ideas.

sagenz said...

Not sure what you have changed Mr Trotter but your recent posts have been on fire! Identifying genuine root causes and influences rather than repeating trite mantras.

Personally I am thinking about how to ensure State assistance and control is ALWAYS temporary and limited. Build state housing but ensure you rotate it by selling it to the occupants.

The only way out of long term benefit dependency is education accompanied by a tax and business incentive structure to ensure people can gradually be weaned out of intergenerational dependency . That education needs to extend to basic domestic matters like cooking, cleaning and importance of parenting skills for those who have not had the benefit of learning from their own parents. The smacking debate has tarred all parents with the same basher tag but the reality is different.

Ian Duncan Smith in UK seems to have identified similar issues and looks to be getting part way towards some answers.

Short comment as no time but well worth exploring

Anonymous said...

Hey Sage, you want the poor chucked out on the streets?

Because thats what WILL happen if you limit access to state support. It will just lead to misery and homelessness.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure you're saying anything very original here, Chris.

Yes, we need more participation and the state is an inherently poor provider of public goods. But the alternative to heavy-handed bureaucracy is a concerned and active citizenry that, to the limited extent it once existed, is now fast disappearing.

Out time-poor , impersonal and increasingly atomised wasy of life does not encourage the gifting of either time or enthusiasm for anything other than personal indulgence or profit.

At least state and local authority employees have to be at their desks and going through the motions of working for a number of hours each day.


Anonymous said...

May I add that we've long had an inter-mingling of state, local authority, not-for-profit, voluntary and commercial agencies working in most key areas of social and health policy.

It's something that you find all over the developed world but we're better than average at it in NZ (particularly as compared to countries I otherwise admire in continental western Europe)

A good example is what happened to me last Saturday when I was rushed to hospital by a very able St John's (i.e. not-for-profit) ambulance team and treated superbly well by the state-funded and educated doctors and nurses who ensured that I was not in a critical condition. I will trip lightly around the diagnostic hazards resulting from Medlab's absence from the scene.

Public housing has been the global bane of social policy ever since the 1960s. But I think it's misguided to extrapolate out from there to the state provision of public goods as a whole.

I don't know why housing is such an intractable problem. But it could be because it inherently re-houses (and ghettoises) issues rather than deals with them.

Overseas, it's also tied up with planning and architectural monstrosities s of the sort that Charles Phillip Arthur George Windsor fulminates famously (and rightly) over .

In contrast , the Bourgeoisified former state houses that now add lustre to your post-prandial
promenades probably remain the best constructed houses in New Zealand. That's why they're being Bourgeoisified .


Anonymous said...

The govt funding a road, but contracting that to the pvt sector to build, is using govt as platform. A voucher system in education features the govt as platform. Providing health "insurance" by contracting pvt hospitals, not just public, to deal with waiting lists is using govt as platform. etc

solatnz said...

Anon, I'm not sure that vouchers or PPPs (although they could be part of it, I suppose) are "government as platform" in the same way that something like everyblock is or public funding of fibre-optic networks is.

It's about providing more than money, IMHO. Gov2.0 is about government providing critical infrastructure for innovation, without which there would be little.

Without wealth (and therefore power) being more broadly distributed than it is in either capitalist or socialist systems, Gov2.0 will probably fail to engage anyone other than bourgeois entrepreneurs and IT students.

Anonymous said...

Solatnz, it is about providing money (from taxpayers current and future) plus a decision about what it is used for. So providing critical infrastructure is indeed using govt as platform. Govt as platform is not a new idea, just a new way of describing it - in short, branding and marketing.