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Home Opinion 'Let every sluice of knowledge be opened and set a-flowing'
Democracy • Populism • Knowledge

'Let every sluice of knowledge be opened and set a-flowing'

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis - 13 July 2015

Politicians who rely too heavily on cloistered experts to make policy ignore the inherent richness of a diverse society and blunt democracy’s comparative advantage

Claudia Chwalisz’s The Populist Signal is a clarion call to the UK political establishment to stand up and take notice. As the tribal drums beat on the heart of the public realm, politicians – representatives forged in electoral bear pits – entreat us to believe that there is only one paradigm. Modern democracy rejected the Athenian ideal of equality, wherein the poor, as much as the rich, were automatically accorded a place in government. Today, electioneering is all we know, but beyond Westminster, in pockets around the world, democracy is being reinvented as it was originally conceived. In Australia, where I live, a number of state governments and local councils have been emboldened by the results of participatory deliberative democracy projects.

The most recent experience has been with the Melbourne city council which last month concluded the review of its $4bn (£2bn) 10-year budget. As the lead researcher Nicholas Reece, from the University of Melbourne, writes: “That a group of 43 randomly selected Melburnians, meeting over six weekends, developed sound policy that is now being implemented, is a profound result for anyone despairing at the state of our democracy. The panel was given open access to information and financial data about the council, along with briefings by experts, senior bureaucrats and councillors. Like a jury, they deliberated and delivered a verdict – in the form a report covering priority projects, services, revenue and spending. Now the council has accepted nearly all of the recommendations, including some brave new policies.”  

In 1945 Friedrich Hayek wrote in The Use of Knowledge in Society: “The problem of dispersed knowledge constitutes the central theoretical problem of all social science.” How should a democratic community make public policy? How best is knowledge made manifest amongst a diverse community? In the age of roller-coasting internet and media  one might suppose that the aggregation of knowledge is much easier now than ever before. However, with this incessant cavalcade, true aggregation is even more difficult.

In Democracy and Knowledge, Josiah Ober contends that America’s second president, John Adams, and Hayek were right: liberty does demand “a general knowledge amongst the people”. Even though the internet promises so much in terms of the means by which dispersed knowledge can be made useful, aggregation still eludes. As Adams exhorted in A Dissertation on the Common and Feudal Law 250 years ago “a willingness to let every sluice of knowledge be opened and set a-flowing” matched with the ability to organise it for learning and innovation, builds democracy’s core capacity. When politicians rely too heavily on the cloistered-expert approach to policy-making, not only do they ignore the inherent richness of a diverse society, but they blunt democracy’s comparative advantage.

In the context of the deepening disaffection with politics generally, modern democracies are likely to be faced with governments comprised of so-called elected majorities, feigning to speak for all; coalitions, accommodations of uncomfortable compromise; and citizen panels, mini-publics. The first and second are business-as-usual: unrepresentative and besieged by populist ranting. The genie is out of the bottle, uncorked 2,500 years ago, but only recently rediscovered in citizen juries. Now, with the major question mark surrounding their competency dispelled, it is time to unleash the power of the people. As Adams said: ‘The preservation of the means of knowledge among the lowest ranks, is of more importance … than all of the property of all of the rich men.”

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis is founder and director of the newDemocracy Foundation

The Melbourne People's Panel is one of the case studies detailed in our new Policy Network report by Claudia Chwalisz: The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change


Tags: Luca Belgiorno-Nettis , democracy , knowledgeness , citizens' assemblies , citizens' juries , representative democracy , deliberation , Melbourne People's Panel , newDemocracy Foundation , populism


13 July 2015 12:35

Nicholas Rees was the main reason why John Brumby (Labor) lost the 2010 state election The so called Citizen Jury is a focus group on steroids. An experiment in consultation manipulation that cost the city of Melbourne $150,000 to stage. The citizen juries are not representative of the community. (Let alone the City of Melbourne which in itself is unrepresentative or the greater Melbourne region. Then information derived from the Citizen Jury is as only as good as the input or in this case limited and selective input, and the expertise to digest and analyze the information that is available. With recommendations such as increasing rates by 2.5% per year plus inflation will not go down well with ratepayers. The City Council is already one the highest spending local authorities in Australia, Citizen Juries are no replacement for elected representatives let alone handed any legislative authority.

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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