Monday, 25 June 2007

Are We Ready For Open Sourcing?

None of us likes to be held to account. I recall from my accounting days in organisations that the annual audit was seen as, at best, a major inconvenience, and, at worst, a holy terror that blighted and destroyed careers. When we are the provider of a service, we do not like to have our actions scrutinised. However, when we are the consumer of a service, we want our voice to count.

In recent years, politicians have scrambled to become closer to the people, whilst also taking steps to keep the people as far away as possible. For example, Tony Blair has tried to interact with ‘the people’ through the Downing Street web site, whilst his spin doctors try to ensure that media contact does not give rise to any negative footage. Occasionally, the policy scores an own goal as the on-line petition over road pricing demonstrates.

In an interesting article in the RSA Journal (see article) George Osborne and Will Davies considered what some might see as a trend towards open source government. Both authors are questioning how politics may be changed in the age of the Internet. The internet enables mass participation in government, but only if there is not too great an asymmetry of information. And therein lies the rub.

Traditionally, the government will have most of the information, which denies people the ability to make an informed choice about issues. This monopoly on information is starting to be eroded. For example, patients can now rate their hospitals (see web site) and my children can now rate their teachers (see web site). However, it is still the case that most information is still in the hands of government – the provider of public services – who are naturally suspicious in matters of accountability. The Rate My Teacher web site lists those schools that have blocked access to the site because the teachers object to it.

The issue of accountability and transparency has spilled into the world of commerce. There is always a complicated relationship between the Directors, Shareholders, and Auditors of listed companies. In a recent survey, the Institute of Chartered Secretaries suggested that the Company Secretaries of three out of four listed companies thought that the AGM was a waste of time and money. And yet, the AGM is the only place in the corporate calendar where the Directors of a company, through the Auditors, are held accountable to the owners of the company (the Shareholders).

Eventually, we will either realise that accountability is an essential part of the democratic process, or we will give up on the democratic process as a means of arranging our affairs. Later this week, the UK will be governed by a Prime Minister who has been elected to that position by nobody – not even his own party. Does that provide us with a glimpse of the future?


steve said...

In your final paragraph you suggest that the UK is governed by a Prime Minister. In fact, our nation is governed by an elected Government, not by one person. There is a valuable debate to be had on how democracy might evolve in future, and this should start with a clear view of the present.

Stephen Aguilar-Millan said...

I agree with the comment, but not fully. There have been a number of examples under the Blair and Thatcher administrations where the PM has been at variance with the Cabinet, and yet has had their way. We are led to believe that the decision to go to war in Iraq was not widely supported in Cabinet, not widely supported by the public, not even supported by the military. In the decision to go to war, it was the view of the PM that was decisive - irrespective of whoever disagreed. We may have an elected Government, but in this case all views other than that of the PM were irrelevant.