Category Archives: #Democracy

Democracy and the Problem of Short-Termism

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by Jaakko Kuosmanen

Successful governance requires taking not only the short-term but also the long-term into consideration. Mitigation of climate change, for example, requires action now, but the benefits from policies adopted today will appear only in future. Similarly, investments in pensions, public infrastructure, or an educational system require long-term planning. Evidence, however, shows that politicians are not always very good at taking long-term into consideration in the design of policies and laws. This constitutes a major problem of governance, which is sometimes described as the ‘problem of short-termism’.

The problem of short-termism cuts across policy fields, and there are various reasons for its emergence. The psychological setup of humans, for example, is such that it can tilt our focus from future towards the present. Various cognitive biases make it harder for us to take long-term into consideration. Humans have, among other things, a tendency to be overly optimistic of the time it takes to complete tasks, and to overestimate their ability to influence outcomes.

In addition to psychological factors, the problem of short-termism can arise due to institutional factors. In democratic systems there is an important institutionalised incentive, which makes governance of the future even more complicated: elections. Short electoral cycles provide a motivation for politicians to engage in projects that will bring benefits in near-term rather than the long-term. Focusing on the needs of those living in the present over the needs of future generations can be an easy choice, as future generations do not cast votes.

This raises foundational questions about democracy: ’Are democratic societies inherently unfit for governing the future?’ Astrophysicist Lord Martin Rees recently declared that ‘only an enlightened despot could push through the measures needed to navigate the 21st century safely’.

Reconciling the tension between democratic governance and governance of the long-term is definitely challenging, and it is not immediately clear to what extent it can be successfully done. But it is also of crucial importance to do our best and attempt to solve the problem of short-termism without abandoning democratic principles. The power to elect and re-elect leaders is an essential part of legitimate governance.

We can be hopeful for two reasons. Firstly, democratic governments around the world are starting to increasingly recognise the problem of short-termism. Secondly, we are still at early stages of capacity building. Many initiatives to support long-term governance in democratic societies are actively being developed.

Both UK and Finland have been at the forefront of this work. Finland has developed various mechanisms that try to steer democratic governance away from short-termist approach. It has introduced a parliamentary committee for future, a report on the future done by each incoming government, and a new foresight unit.

In the UK, Wales recently adopted Well-Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act, which aims to bring long-term goals at the heart of public governance. The Act, which was celebrated around the world, makes Wales a pioneer in long-term governance. At Whitehall there have also been active efforts to strengthen the government’s long-term governance capacities. In recent years we’ve seen, for example, a concerted effort to build effective foresight capacities, which aim to ensure that politicians are prepared for challenges of the future.

These much needed projects undertaken by the UK and Finnish government constitute a promising start. Overall, however, there is no room for complacency. The rise of systemic risks and our increasing capacity to harm the interest of future generations means that we need to act urgently. We need to revamp democracies for the 21st Century.

 

Jaakko Kuosmanen

Dr Jaakko Kuosmanen is the Co-ordinator of the Oxford Martin Programme on Human Rights for Future Generations and a Research Fellow at the Law Faculty at the University of Oxford. Jaakko received his PhD at the University of Edinburgh, and he has previously worked at the Council of Europe. Jaakko has lectured at various universities on public international law, public policy, and global justice. He is currently teaching at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. Jaakko’s research focuses on the design of long-term oriented governing institutions, and he also provides consultancy for various governments

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Populist Euroscepticism on the Rise: What is the Role of the Media?

Sampo Viiri from the Finnish Institute blogs about the event ‘Shaping the vote: politics and populism in the media’ which was organised 15 May 2014 by Counterpoint UK.
The European parliament elections are now over and the populist and eurosceptic right-wing parties have made spectacular gains across Europe, perhaps most notably Nigel Farage’s UKIP in the United Kingdom and the National Front in France. The outcome has already been labelled as an earthquake but what this means for the daily politics in Brussels and Strasbourg remains to be seen. Shortly before the election Counterpoint UK organised a panel discussion on the effects of the media on the support of populist right-wing parties in Europe.

The event was part of  a cross-national project entitled ‘Nurturing populism? The impact of the media on the growth of populist right-wing parties in Netherlands, France and Finland’, which is a collaborative effort between Counterpoint, Dr Erkka Railo, Senior researcher at the University of Turku, Dr Jiska Engelbert, Assistant Professor at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam and Dr Gael Villeneuve, Researcher at the Laboratoire Communication et Politique. They were joined in the panel by Martin Sandbu from the Financial Times, Sunder Katwala, Director of British Future and Suzanne Moore, Columnist for the Guardian. The event was moderated by Catherine Fieschi, Director of Counterpoint.

The panelists introduced the different media aspects in the respective countries. Erkka Railo explained that the main points in the media coverage about the Finns Party (previously True Finns) were immigration and the European financial crisis. The Finnish media has been very critical towards financial aid packages for other European countries, which has given credibility to the anti-European ideas of the Finns Party. There has also been a big increase in the news stories about immigration. 10 years ago most of the media saw Finland lacking “good” immigrants, but with the hard economic times the tide has turned towards more critical views on immigration. Now that the European financial crisis is perhaps finally starting to ease off, the Finns Party may need to utilise xenophobic rhetoric because they can’t forever keep blaming the international economic crisis for everything.
To summarise the findings in other countries: In France the president has a lot of power to influence the content in the media. Nicolas Sarkozy used populist themes himself in his bid to re-election in 2012, labeling multiculturalism and Islam as threats to the republic. In the Netherlands the assassination of the populist leader Pim Fortuyn in 2002 was a shock to the media and everyone, after which nobody dared to criticise the populists for a while. Dutch populism should be researched beyond Geert Wilders’ PVV party because other major parties are also engaging in populism and the public’s level of confidence towards politicians is low.
Norway’s case is unique in Western Europe because the Progress Party is now actually in the government and thus involved in important national decisions, so the media has to give serious space for their policies. In the United Kingdom the media’s role has some contradictory aspects: BBC somehow fears its liberal reputation and may want to give extra space for UKIP’s views, but as a whole the press has been trying to kill off UKIP. This hasn’t lead to any results. On the contrary, parts of the electorate see the demonising of UKIP as a conspiracy and this has increased their support.
The different country studies made clear that the political context and the parties are quite different in each country. It is important not to oversimplify and label all the populist parties as far-right or treat all of them as parts of the same international political force. Some of the parties like UKIP, the Finns Party or the Norwegian Progress Party are fairly mellow compared to the more extreme far-right parties for example in Greece and Hungary. Counterpoint has created a visual tool to compare the different parties, and together with the Daily Telegraph they also published an interactive map about the different right-wing populist parties in Europe which highlights their differences and similarities. However, not all the victorious populist parties were right-wing, for example the radical leftist Syriza won the election in Greece.
The Finnish Institute in London continues to investigate the media effects on the public’s knowledge and potential information asymmetries. Recently we published the report Knowledge Gap and the Information Environment – More informed citizens or a growing divide? which examines the media effects on distribution of knowledge between different socioeconomic groups.

Professor Couldry fears the consequences of Big Data


Kristofer Jäntti blogs about Nick Couldry’s lecture on the dangers of Big Data

Nick Couldry, Professor of Media, Communications and Social Theory at the LSE, gave a lecture last week about three prevailing myths around the social role of media as a part of the LSE lecture series. He charts these myths starting from the inception mass media to the enthusiasm surrounding Big Data today. These myths have a pivotal role in shaping our view of society as the media consists of ‘institutions with the power over the means of representing shared reality’.

The first myth he calls the ‘myth of the mediated centre’, which emerged with the creation of the mass media with modern nation-states. This myth has two components: (1) first that society has a ‘centre’ from which our values, meaning and knowledge emanate from, and (2) that ‘the media’ gives us privileged access to this ‘centre’, being the pre-eminent source for understanding what is going on in the world.


His notion of the myth of the ‘mediated centre’ is similar to Benedict Anderson’s celebrated thesis that nations are necessarily imagined and enabled with aid of the printing press. What unites both these writers, however, is that this process is not necessarily ‘top-down’ (though it can be) but constitutes a form of understanding that we perpetuate in everyday interactions. He recounts childhood memories in which his mother would ‘participate’ in the televised annual rowing race between Oxford and Cambridge, proudly wearing a pin in support of the latter despite having never had gone to university.


What is noteworthy, is the emergence of the mass media coincided with split between ‘the media’ on the one hand and ‘communications’ on the other. The former represents a centralised form information dispersion whereas the latter often is often more personal in nature; the difference between a newspaper editorial and a telephone call. However, in our current information environment this delineation is blurring as both institutional media and communications are starting to share the same platforms, for instance on Facebook.


This criss-crossing gives rise to the second myth which he calls ‘the myth of us’. This myth, often propagated by vested interests, holds that social networking sites (e.g. Facebook, Google+, etc.) are ‘natural collectivities’ which bypass and challenge centralised media channels. In reality large media companies are also active participants in these platforms. For instance he notes in his article ‘Does the media have a Future’ that the majority of The Sun’s online newspaper’s traffic is derived from social networking sites (Couldry 2009, 444).   

Furthermore, many of these companies are very interested in the information about users’ behaviours. He notes that there are many unwelcome developments with these changes. One of which is that we are mutely accepting authoritarian structures, with the constant need sign in and out of different online services. The second, equally important issue, is that the explosion of user-information has propagated a hubristic belief in the power of large data in understanding and predicting the social world, ‘the Myth of Big Data’.

He decries the fact that individual circumstances have become irrelevant as companies and governments formulate policies based on proxies, that is regularities that predict probable future behaviour. A good example of this is when supermarkets use consumer purchases data to target specific groups for marketing. An infamous case being when the US retailer Target unwittingly exposed a teen pregnancy when they sent coupons for pregnancy products to her home based on her purchase history.

Second, the use of Big Data is subverting some of our deeply held views about the role of journalism as the generator of ‘common knowledge’. For example, the use of Google Analytics is increasingly dictating the type and content of newspaper articles, preventing ‘boring’ yet important topics being brought forth into the public sphere.

Above all, Couldry is worried about the abandonment of  ‘hermeneutic’ (interpretive) methods as more people hop on the Big Data bandwagon. The availability of an abundance data with the ability to make increasingly good predictions about people’s behaviour has led some to challenge the idea one would need specialists who would carefully design hypotheses in order to understand human behaviour, as Chris Anderson did in his famous WIRED article ‘The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method obsolete’.  This challenge is especially acute for academics, like Couldry, as the defining feature of the Social Sciences is that they are interpretive in nature. He fears that with the increasing belief in the superiority in Big Data as a method of social inquiry, less funding will be diverted to traditional Social Sciences.

As a result, he advocates the disenchantment of the ‘Myth of Big Data’ with what he, aptly, calls ‘a hermeneutic of the anti-hermeneutic’. This would entail recovering the idea of a social actor as key unit of analysis as well as embarking on research on what he calls ‘Social analytics’, that is ‘the study of how social actors are using analytics to meet their own ends’. 

Ultimately, as Big Data eschews hermeneutics, it may undermine exploring such concepts as ‘justice’ and ‘injustice’ which involve a good deal of interpretation.
 

Roberto Unger calls for a high-energy democracy

 

 

Kristofer Jäntti blogs about Roberto Unger’s suggestions for an alternative programme for British Labour

Professor Roberto Unger, the social theorist, the philosopher and politician, gave a lecture entitled ‘The Labour Party and the British Alternative’ at the IPPR offices in London last week. His ideas suggests a new framework for Centre-left Politics in which the narrow call for egalitarian redistribution within the post war institutional arrangement is jettisoned for what he calls ‘deep freedom’ in which ‘societies possess both the institutional and the conceptual means to create novel varieties of political, economic and social pluralism’ (Unger 2013: 97).
A key idea underpinning Professor Unger’s work is the notion that the form that society takes is  a result of human artifice. Therefore, in his lecture, he forcefully argues against what he calls the ‘false view of political realism’ which posits that credible policy alternatives are those which are close to what we already have. As a result, he suggests a comprehensive programme for the Left to orientate their Politics.
His programme calls for sweeping changes to how society operates. In terms of Economic policy he wants Finance to be the servant and not the master of the real economy, and sees small and mid-sized firms as the engines of economic growth. In particular, he would like create an institutional framework that allows these firms to access the knowledge and financial resources they need. One of his suggestion is to create decentralized government-funded financial institutions that act like venture-capitalists, providing much-needed capital to firms.
His economic reforms are accompanied with new legislation to increase the protection of worker’s rights. Above all, instead of the humanization of the current system through the transfer of wealth, he wants to extend the means of the good life to all citizens. He hopes that this measure would help people escape the drudgery of daily life and reach new heights of human existence.
In some respects his suggestions addresses issues as the knowledge gap and the concomitant political apathy. In particular, he wants to reinvigorate democracy with greater devolution of policy-making and institutional arrangement that favours constant experimentation. As a result, he argues that political parties and social movement should have better access to the means of mass communication. Underpinning these ideas is his attempt re-imagine democratic Politics in such a way whereby major change is not contingent on a precipitating crisis, but is an ongoing process. He proclaims that  ‘the aim of Politics should be what Popper aimed in science; to make mistakes as fast as possible’ .
In terms of education policy, he sees that the state should ensure that education is less about ‘encyclopedic learning’ but more about teaching children analytical problem solving in which subjects are explored from different view-points. After this, he argues, the state should abandon current attempts to constantly test and rank schools in the UK.  During the Q&A session he offered the Finnish educational system as an exemplar of a ‘decentralized’ education system in which highly capable teachers are given a lot of freedom to experiment with different ways of teaching.
The feasibility of some of his economic-policy suggestions are outside the sphere of competence of the author of this blog post. His suggestions for educational reform is sensible, though probably needs to be tested on a smaller scale before it will be unleashed nation-wide. Though, recent research from the UK suggests that focusing on the early years of education is one of the best ways to improve education outcome in the worst off.
Professor Unger, the guru of the Left, may contribute to the ideological renewal of the Labour Party. It is evident that his suggestions are the product of an erudite philosopher with an idealised view of human potential. Therefore, it needs to be seen whether this will translate to concrete measures if Labour wins the next election.

Recent trends in media regulation


 
Kristofer Jäntti blogs about the CAMRI/FACE workshop in London

Traditional broadcast media is facing financial challenges from both reduced public funds and the increased importance of the media, as well calls for public guidelines for regulation in the wake of Snowden-gate and the UK phone-hacking scandal. Last week Communications scholars from Finland and the UK held a workshop discussing the future of European public broadcasting as well as the prospects of increased public oversight. These changes have consequences for democratic society.

The financial crisis and the ensuing austerity measures as well as increased digitisation has led to public discussion about the future funding of public broadcasts. In Finland the public broadcaster’s (YLE) future has secured through replacing the tv license fee with a progressive ‘media tax’ levied on on every citizen irrespective of whether they own a television or not . In Greece the state has taken another course of action and to shut down public television and radio altogether, with the hopes of reestablishing it as a more streamlined operation in the futur
Underpinning these discussion is the demise of traditional media consumption. Dr. Marko Ala-Fossi offers a gloomy assessment for the future of terrestrial television. He argues that the increased competition from internet-based media is threatening the position of television as the preeminent mode of electronic mass communication. For example, he notes that recently the ITU World Radio Conference in 2012 decided to allocate the 700Mhz band for mobile broadband in addition to to the initial 800Mhz, to the dismay of European broadcasters who are left with less space for terrestrial and digital television.
In fact, there are worries that the days of terrestrial television broadcasts are numbered with German commercial broadcasters ending their terrestrial channels in 2015. An issue that was raised in the workshop was the question whether we are moving towards a fee-paying model due to constraints on budget to maintain terrestrial infrastructure combined with competition from pay-TV competitors, such as Sky TV. Dr. Ala-Fossi suggests that there is a possibility that with the demise of terrestrial television may result in free-tv disappearing altogether.  In terms of the knowledge gap, as discussed in earlier blog posts, the rise of fee-paying broadcast model may increase the divide between those who can afford to pay satellite channels and those who cannot.
In addition to the possible consequences of the demise of terrestrial television is the question of how to ensure media plurality,especially after Hungary’s controversial introduction of their new media law that is feared to curb freedom of speech. This controversy over state intrusion has, according to Professor Steven Barnett, overshadowed concerns about media concentration in the private sphere. In particular, he notes that the Commission’s policy in this area, until recently, has been to leave plurality concerns to the level of member states themselves. Now there is a European Citizen’s Initiative calling for ensuring media plurality on the EU-level, however the 12, 000 signatures so far is a far cry for the one million required for the Commission to take action.
However, recent policy developments are fostering greater concentration in emerging technologies. Dr. Maria Michalis highlights the fact that EU’s telecommunications policy is undergoing a paradigm shift in which the need for innovation take primacy over other concerns, such as competitive markets and consumer welfare. She argues that this shift is likely to lead to more lenient regulations as well as the temporary toleration for monopolistic market structures in new technologies  in order to create European companies strong enough to challenge the American giants.
Lastly, Dr. Daniel Trottier highlights some unexpected developments in digital media surveillance. He argues that in addition to ‘top-down’ surveillance of social media à la NSA there are also instances of ‘bottom-up’ surveillance whereby citizen vigilantes ‘crowdsource’ information in order to police the web. An example he introduces is the case of a Canadian Facebook group that collected information from other Facebook users in order to identify rioters who took part in the Vancouver riots of 2011 following the defeat of the Vancouver Canucks in the the Stanley Cup. He  notes that some identified suspected rioters lost their jobs and scholarships.
Dr. Trottier’s research shows how top-down and bottom-up surveillance are using the same social media platforms. The Internet no longer offers the anonymity it may once had and there is the risk that citizens may have their personal information used against them, if not at the behest of state authorities, but also enthusiastic by fellow citizens.

In conclusion, the direction of media research is to see how policy-makers are to respond to some of the challenged emerging from the changes  in our media landscape. The emerging consensus, so far, is that the EU has not been effective in enacting laws that ensure media plurality in the interest of citizens, despite the European Parliament’s activity in this area.

Politics as Morality – Lakoff explains how metaphors influence the way we vote




Kristofer Jäntti blogs about George Lakoff’s contribution to Politics


George Lakoff, the renowned cognitive linguist, stresses the importance of metaphorical thinking and frames for human cognition. In his lecture  in London (Monday 7th of October), arranged by Counterpoint, he  challenges contemporary conceptions of political communication and the Enlightenment view of rationality.


Europe is undergoing a ‘Populist Zeitgeist’ where populist parties have not only increased their share of the vote but are also in government, recently exemplified by the entry of the Progress Party as junior partner in a coalition with the Conservatives in Norway. In Britain UKIP saw a surge in votes in the last local elections and is expected to do well in the coming European elections.

Lakoff argues that reason for this hemorrhaging of votes from mainstream parties to the political fringes is the misconceived policy of trying to appeal to voters in the political centre – a notion that he argues does not exist. In his book Moral Politics he argues that what distinguishes conservatives from progressives are two different moral systems: the strict father and the nurturant mother. The former is a metaphor for a family that teaches self-reliance and self-discipline while the latter is one where each family member cares and is cared by one another.

Most people mostly fall into one of the two moral systems. ‘Moderates’ are still dominated by one moral system while retaining elements from the other. Lakoff sees the attempts of parties to ‘capture’ moderates by appealing to both moral systems as mistaken. Instead, he councils to parties to frame their political messages in one or the other moral systems, which will ensure that the ‘dominant’ moral system in moderates will overpower the other.

Moreover, he argues that political arguments framed with the view that voters make decisions consciously and dispassionately after reviewing the facts is ineffective and exhibits an erroneous Enlightenment view of rationality. In his lecture he proclaims a different vision of human rationality: ‘To be rational you must be emotional’. Therefore, Political Parties can improve the effectiveness of their messages by framing their campaigns using stories and metaphors that appeal to the emotions by tapping into the unconscious moral systems.

Professor Lakoff’s theories about human cognition and suggestions for political communication are thought-provoking, yet to some they are sinister. One of the main contentions, however,  is how his biconceptual model of moral systems works outside the context of the USA. For example, the campaign that saw the spectacular political rise of Pim Fortuyn in Netherlands in the early 2000’s combined a call for tighter immigration control (strict father model) with a staunch support for the rights of women and sexual minorities (nurturing family model).

In conclusion, George Lakoff’s application of Linguistic Cognitive Science to the realm of Political Science is analogous to the ‘Behavioural Revolution’ in Economics. Understanding how people  ‘tick’ improves the way political parties frame their message and, perhaps, can be used as way to halt the decreasing levels of political participation in developed countries. Smoking and healthy-eating are examples of notions that have been successfully ‘reframed’ with the corollary changes in behaviour which implies that Lakoff’s work has the potential to address the Knowledge Gap.

Towards Fair and Inclusive Knowledge Society: Exploring the Causes and Consequences of the Knowledge Gap


Kristofer Jäntti blogs about Finnish Institute’s new programme strand.

There is a Knowledge Gap: the division between the knowledge rich and knowledge poor. The former have the motivation, knowledge and skills to influence public affairs while the latter are effectively disempowered. These divisions have consequences on the quality of the democratic process and help to sustain social inequities.

This is happening while we are living in an information environment unlike any before, an environment that can potentially foster various forms of open knowledge: releasing open data, placing culture in the public domain and enhancing the interaction between civil society and government.


Our democratic society is premised on the idea that each citizen has the necessary information to take part in democratic deliberation. This does not ensure consensual nor particular outcomes but it does ensure that outcomes are a general reflection of the public will[i].
Yet, there are still significant barriers in use, access and understanding of information. Morozov questions the democratic potential of the Internet[ii], and Bartels highlights the detrimental effects of a mismatched self-interest on policy-outcomes and overall well-being[iii].
The academic literature, so far, has explored the effect of (new) media on democratic deliberation. This research can be broadly divided into two viewpoints. The first sees the new media as potentially enhancing the democratic process by either increasing civic knowledge[iv] or help in political mobilizing[v] .The second sees it undermining it through widening the political knowledge gap[vi] eroding social capital[vii], and demotivating the electorate[viii].
Beyond these two polar-opposites there is a view, prominently argued by Kenneth Newton, which holds that the media should be seen as embedded into society and its effects are mediated by other forces in society, such as class and personal values[ix]. Newton highlights three paradoxes about the media and its effects. First, those who have the least interest in politics are most affected by the media, though they are least likely to expose themselves to it. Second, the more people have personal experience of something they are more likely to be interested in it when they encounter it on the media, though they are more likely to trust their own judgements. Third, the more the partisan media tries to persuade the less it is trusted and exhibits the least amount of influence[x].


Noakes’s ideas are linked to Markus Prior’s forceful argument on the effects of the structural change that has happened in our information environment. He notes that we used to live in a ‘low-choice broadcast environment’ that is characterised by only a few choices for media. In this ‘restricted’ environment people were often inadvertently exposed to important news ensuring that the even some of the people least likely to be interested in the political process received a rudimentary level of civic knowledge and current affairs [xi].


Now in our ‘high-choice environment’ with a plethora of media outlets catering to different interests ensures that those who are least interested in current affairs are less likely to be ‘accidentally’ exposed to important news – or even bypass it altogether. Conversely, those who are most interested in current affairs are now in a better position than ever before to increase their knowledge. Both of these trends confirm one of the greatest ironies of our time: the transition into the ‘information age’ has coincided with a drop in political knowledge in significant portion of the electorate[xii]


The insights of Newton and Prior can be useful to understand mass opinion beyond the narrow realm of political science into a wide variety of social questions. For example, strong scientific evidence about the harmfulness of cigarettes has been available for over 40 years yet despite overwhelming evidence and anti-smoking campaigns sizeable portion of the adult population still smoke. Or for a more recent example, why the two-thirds of the American public supported president Bush’s tax cuts despite being concerned of growing income-inequality, thus effectively acting against their own economic interests[xiii].


These questions indicate that people are reacting to societal messages through personal biases partly informed and validated by knowledge derived from different sources – widening the knowledge gap between different groups in society.
The Finnish Institute has been at the forefront of exploring these issues as a part of its open knowledge agenda: publishing The Open Book’ – a multi-author book contextualising the international open knowledge movement from the perspective of those fostering it, and being a key actor in organising ‘The Open Knowledge Festival’ in Helsinki and helping to establish Open Knowledge Finland.
Now its new agenda seeks to explore the ways to identify tangible scenarios where and how information asymmetries have caused adverse effects to democratic decision-making and to examine how to bridge the evidently widening gap. To do this we have to investigate three questions:


· What are the dynamics leading people to hold erroneous information?
· What measures can be taken to increase people’s motivation to find and use important information?
· What can be done to improve equity in our information society?


A public sphere free from contestation is as utopian of a prospect as democracy without conflict. However, aspiring to make each citizen as informed as possible on important social issues helps us move closer to our democratic ideals and, perhaps, help us find ways to increase general well-being.


[i] Delli Carpini & Keeter (1996) What Americans know about politics and why it matters, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, pp. 6.
[ii] Morozov (2009) ’Iran: Downside to the ”Twitter Revolution”; To Save Everything, Click Here (2013)
[iii] Bartels ‘Homer Gets a Tax Cut: Inequality and Public Policy in the American Mind’
[iv] Lupia & Philipot (2005) ‘Vews from inside the Net: How Websites Affect Young Adults’ Political Interest’, The Journal of Politics, pp. 1122 – 1142.
[v] Krueger (2006) ‘A Comparison of Conventional and Internet Political Mobilization’, American Politics Research, pp. 759-776.
[vi] Bonfadelli (2002) ‘The Internet and Knowledge Gaps: A Theoretical and Empirical Investigation’, European Journal of Communication, pp. 65-84.
[vii] Putnam (1995) ‘Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital’, Journal of Democracy, Vol. 6, No. 1, pp. 65-78
[viii] Ansolabehere et al. (1994) ‘Does Attack Advertising Demobilize the Electorate’, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 88, No. 4, pp. 829-838
[ix] Newton (1999) ’Mass Media Effects: Mobilization or Media Malaise?’, British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 29, No. 4, pp. 577-599
[x] Newton (2006) ’May the weak force be with you: The power of of the mass media in modern politics’, European Journal of Political Research, Vol. 45, pp. 209-234
[xi] Prior (2005) ’News vs. Entertainment: How Increasing Media Choice Widens Gaps in Political Knowledge and Turnout’, American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 49, No. 3, pp. 577-592
[xii] ibid p. 589
[xiii] Bartels (2007) ’Uninformed Votes: Information Effects in Presidential Elections’, American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 40, No. 1, pp. 194-230

Afternoon with Open Ministry – outcomes and challenges of open policy making in Finland


Head of Society Programme Antti Halonen blogs about our recent event on citizen initiatives and open policy making.


The Finnish Institute organised together with the Embassy of Finland, Democratic Society and Open Data Institute an event where Aleksi Rossi, a co-founder of Open Ministry, gave a passionate lecture on citizen initiatives and how to facilitate them. The lecture was followed by a round table discussion on the more general outcomes and challenges of open policy making.


Open Ministry is a non-profit organization based in Helsinki. They help citizens and NGO’s with national citizens’ initiatives, EU citizens initiatives and develop online services for collaborating, sharing and signing the initiatives. Open Ministry was established in 2012, after the new Finnish constitution came into force. The constitution allows every citizen a right to put forward a law proposal for the Parliament to consider. If the proposal gains more than 50.000 signatures within six months, then the Parliament is obliged to discuss and vote on the initiative.


Rossi started of the event with a brief reminder of Finland’s relatively good standing in international country comparison rankings. Despite the harsh climate (or maybe partly because of it) Finland seems to do rather well: no 3 in PISA rankings (2009) and no 1 in anti-corruption index (2009), to name a few. In addition, the Finnish political culture has long been characterised by a high level of public trust towards the government.


According to Rossi, however, this trust has started to erode. This is reflected in a decrease in election turnouts and a collapse in political party memberships. There is, in parallel, a growing demand for exploring new forms of participative democracy and open policy making.


Open Ministry’s version of open policy making combines technology and the human factor interestingly. It recognises the fact that technology itself can never be a solution for social problems or a motivator for political participation. In addition to the internationally unique system of strong online authentication, Open Ministry provides an opportunity for citizens to sign initiatives in public libraries. It also participates in an academic study on the longitudinal changes in public opinion.  


Rossi explained that there is an abundance of ideas for citizen initiatives, but the big problem is how to filter the good ideas and how to develop them into credible law proposals. Open Ministry provides a platform for crowdsourced draft writing and also expert help in formulating the final law text proposals.


Effectively Open Ministry works as a good indicator of public opinion. Most of the initiatives never gather enough signatures to enter the parliamentary discussion but in some cases citizen initiatives can reveal an overwhelming public support for a particular initiative that has been previously neglected by the parliament. In Finland, the initiative supporting equal marriage gathered over 100.000 signatures in one day only, thus making it virtually impossible for the parliament to ignore the topic.   


How to place Open Ministry in a bigger societal context? Participation through political parties is still as relevant as ever. Crowdsourcing will never replace representative parliaments, but it doesn’t undermine the value of citizen initiatives. Where Open Ministry have been particularly successful, is in highlighting the fact that the expertise does not necessarily lie within parliaments or established policy makers only. The question worth asking is, how to harness this collective skill without losing the efficiency and accountability of representative systems.


This culture of openness was one of the highlighting themes of the event. Arguably the culture change is not only a question for governments and civil services to consider, but increasingly for communities, too. Individual citizens have to realise that due to demographic changes the relevance of certain structures of decision making and service delivery have to be scrutinised. In terms of political participation, especially the younger generation needs to find a way to get their voice heard. Bold initiatives like Open Ministry can help in creating a political culture where interconnected networks and smaller scale local initiatives are not only appreciated, but also put in use for a more participative democracy.


You can read a storify-summery of the event and listen the presentation


Generating expectations – A preview of Participatory Budgeting

Laura Sillanpää blogs about the Institute’s participatory budgeting research in the making.

The Finnish Institute commenced a research on participatory budgeting earlier this year. The purpose of the research is to examine the experiences of participatory budgeting in the United Kingdom and to contribute to the timely discussion on local democracy, public participation and service delivery in the context of Finnish society in particular. The purpose of this blog entry is to briefly explain readers what has been done until now and give a small peek on what interviewees of selected projects have revealed about participatory budgeting in the UK.

The ways in which participatory budgeting is implemented vary depending on the local context. Therefore the projects studied for this research easily fall into more than just one type of participatory budgeting.

Our initial objective was to find different implementations of participatory budgeting in as geographically representative a manner as possible. Tight schedules and changes to local government personnel, however, caused some difficulties with reaching representatives of projects. It also became evident that most of the participatory budgeting processes carried out in the UK with enough easily accessible information belonged to the community grants type. This led for the focus of the research to be on projects that are about allocating funds to local organisations and community groups.

Ultimately there were six projects under scrutiny. Three of the projects took place in the north of England, one in the Midlands and two in the south of England. As mentioned, most of the projects were community grants type processes but there were also a few that could be said to belong to the pooled budgets group. One project began as a top slicing project but was soon transformed into a community grants process. Three projects addressed a certain area of service, these being children and young people, health and community safety.

Seven representatives of the above-mentioned projects were interviewed: one from each with the exception of one project in the case of which two people were interviewed. Three interviews took place face-to-face, two over the phone and two via email. This all happened in the course of March–April.

Expectations of Participatory Budgeting

Participatory budgeting is commonly seen to generate many positive outcomes for communities, which also give rise to specific expectations.  The most often stated objectives according to literature are as follows:

  1. enhanced democracy and participation at the local level by engaging residents and enabling them to have a say
  2. reduced neighbourhood deprivation and enhanced social cohesion
  3. better, more transparent governance
  4. improved service delivery and enhanced quality of life in the communities especially during times of public budget cuts.

The reasons behind implementing participatory budgeting given by the interviewees reflect quite well the general, above-mentioned objectives. Involving and empowering local residents and communities and enhancing local democracy were clearly the most often mentioned. Other objectives were familiarising people with authorities and their work – especially with the difficulties of decision-making – and encouraging further engagement of local residents in other areas as well.

With time, as participatory budgeting processes become well established, the objectives seem to become more refined, as authorities already know what to expect. Therefore, as one interviewee put it, participatory budgeting for them has more of a signalling function and is less about pure service delivery – it gives the authorities an idea on what issues local residents consider important and what they’re interested in doing. And, according to preliminary analysis of the interviews, this seems to be one of the most valuable outcomes of participatory budgeting in general.

The final report of our research will be published later in June/July.

Discussion event on 30 May 2013: Future of Freedom of Information? Government Transparency and its Unintended Consequences

The Finnish Institute together with Embassy of Finland and Birkbeck University will host a discussion event on freedom of information and open data on Thursday 30 May at the residence of the Finnish Ambassador, HE Pekka Huhtaniemi.

The event consists of two parts: we will start off with a talk by Dr Tero Erkkilä, assistant professor in the Department of Political and Economic studies at the University of Helsinki, followed by a comment from Dr Ben Worthy, lecturer in politics at the Birkbeck University. Dr Erkkilä’s talk will be based on his new book “Government Transparency: Impacts and Unintended Consequences” (Palgrave Macmillan 2012).

In the second part, we will have a panel discussion with plenty of time for questions from the floor. Christopher Cook from the Financial Times, Paul Gibbons (Information Compliance Manager at SOAS & creator of the FoI Man blog) and Dr Gesche Schmid (Programme Manager at Local Government Association) have kindly agreed to join the panel.

The event is open for everyone interested, so feel free to share the invitation but please do RSVP to tiina.heinila(at)formin.fi in advance if you’d like to attend.

Date and time: Thursday 30 May 2013, 2pm-6pm
Location: Finnish ambassador’s residence, 14 Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 4QP

Programme: 
14.00-14.30    Registration
14.30-14.45     Introductions
14.45-15.15      Dr Tero Erkkilä
15.15-15.45      Dr Ben Worthy
15.45-16.00     Coffee
16.00-17.00    Panel and Q&A
17.00-18.00    Drinks and canapés

***

Transparency has recently become one of the defining concepts in public administration. Arguably transparency is now globally seen as a key part of democratic governance, and it has gained an increasingly significant status in debate over government and institutional design.

This event aims at identifying why and how transparency has become such a topical concept and how has it reacted with the rapid digital development. The main questions that will be asked are as follows:

  • What are the impacts of freedom of information and digital transparency?
  • What are the possible unintended consequences of transparency especially in performance management?
  • What is the state of government transparency in Finland and in the UK today?
  • What is the future of government transparency in an increasingly digital society?
  • How should the freedom of information law be amended in order to fully satisfy citizens’ right to information?

Post-industrialised societies have recently taken a form where many key infrastructures are increasingly based on digital data and where the friction in creating and disseminating information has rapidly vanished. The amount of information available has increased exponentially and the relationship between governments and citizens in this data society has arguably changed in terms of information creation and use.

In addition to the amount of information, also the diversity of information types has increased exponentially. In the digital age information can refer to anything from genes to geodata and from literature to source code. The questions of fair access to information and universal right to use information are topical societal challenges that remain unsolved. Moreover, research results indicate towards a vast economic potential in the free reuse of public sector information.

One of the key questions for contemporary information societies, however, is to distinguish between open data’s potential for growth and innovation in one hand, and for democracy in the other. What also needs to be addressed is the potential risk of undermining freedom of information if open data policies prematurely replace reactive freedom of information laws. We need to be aware of the potential ambiguity of government transparency: does increased “transparency” in fact increase democratic accountability or merely administrative efficiency.

The event is targeted at a high-level audience consisting of policy-makers, journalists, civil servants, academics and public policy enthusiasts.

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