Monday, 15 September 2014

Experimentally Seeking Progress

Lifelong learning is indispensable because no one can reach the point where there is nothing more to know or understand. Learning is an on-going journey where we continuously discover more ways to dispel myths and misconceptions, and find new ideas and insights to improve the way we live.

But this quest is made all the more difficult because, at one end of the political spectrum, there are people who want to see all thoughts frozen at just where they would like them to be. For the sake of traditions, stability, prosperity, or any other totem they can point to, they consider critical exploration of prevailing beliefs and institutions as unhelpful, perhaps even dangerous. Education for them is all about passive acceptance of pre-fabricated ‘facts’.

At the opposite end we have those who are not so much interested in learning as in revelling in a state of permanent iconoclasm. They dismiss every idea as untenable. They reject every attempt to share knowledge as indoctrination. For them, the excitement of fermenting ‘anything-goes’ chaos outweighs all drawbacks of ignorance and irrationality. Any form of teaching, except their own, is to be shunned as authoritarian.

To steer through these two extremes we need to follow the path of didactic experimentalism. What is to be believed should not be fixed at some arbitrary point, nor randomly denied for no good reason. Our views on nature and society ought to be adjusted in the light of informed experimentation that sifts out errors over time and builds on findings that add clarity and coherence to our shared understanding.

One may assume that this is the natural path people would take, but history tells us differently. For thousands of years down to the early 17th century, the Chinese philosopher, Mo Tze (5th century BC), stood out as one of the few thinkers in pre-modern times to have advocated the experimentalist approach – linking his teachings and proposals to what best met the test of experience. Even now, his ideas are eclipsed by the traditionalist Confucians and the ‘free-for-all’ Taoists.

In the 17th century, even as Francis Bacon was mapping out how experimentalist learning could lead to the incremental advancement of testable and revisable knowledge, it was the rise of ‘we’ll give you certainty-for-all-time’ infallibilism and ‘I doubt there’s-any-truth-to-be-learnt’ scepticism that stole the limelight. Bacon’s contributions have remained overlooked in educational and general history alike.

And despite the depth and breadth of the experimentalist teachings put forward by 19th/20th century thinkers such as J. S. Mill and John Dewey, all too many conservative-minded education funders and policy makers still regard those ideas as unsuited to the steady ‘transmission’ of knowledge, while there are radicals who distrust them for not throwing everything overboard.

Perhaps extremes will always carry a forceful appeal. But for all their uncompromising stance and flamboyant postures, they lead to a dead-end. When it comes to learning to improve our understanding of the world and how it can be made better, progress is more likely if we follow the trail blazed by the experimentalist pioneers.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Keeping Democracy On Its Toes

Elected politicians and appointed officials are entrusted with making decisions in the public interest when it is not feasible for the public to make those decisions themselves. But how do we know that they are acting for the common good? Question the Powerful speaks to Jessica Crowe, Executive Director of the Centre for Public Scrutiny (CfPS).

Why is public scrutiny essential in keeping public bodies responsive and accountable?

It comes down to one basic principle – someone who makes a decision should not be the only one to review or question whether it was the right decision or had the intended consequences. As individuals, if we take a decision, we will always be biased in favour of thinking it was just and wise. Public bodies, spending the public’s money and often with power over people’s lives, cannot do without the ‘critical friend’ challenge that public scrutiny provides. It’s not just about keeping them honest – which is vital – it’s also about enabling the wisdom of crowds to be brought to bear and to improve decisions and services for the future.

Are the public only interested in scrutiny findings if they are linked to some scandals?

We can’t expect the public to be engaged in every aspect of governance all the time – they have lives to lead and that’s why they elect their representatives to do the job. But obviously the more public interest there is, the greater the mandate scrutineers have to challenge and probe, so they need to keep on doing more to ensure their work is publicly visible, relevant and inclusive. My experience is that when scrutiny investigates a key issue, the public (or at least those sections of the public most affected) do get involved, whether there is a big scandal or not.

Do you think the quality of public scrutiny in the UK compares well or not with that of other countries?

I think public scrutiny has not been helped by the quality of public debate fostered by some of our national newspapers, or the coverage in the local and regional press. Internationally I know there is concern from bodies like Transparency International about recent developments such as the imminent demise of the Audit Commission, but we still compare well on many measures of public corruption. The most active local public scrutiny now often comes from the ‘hyperlocal blogosphere’ – but there must still be a question about the quality of some of this and how well-informed it is. It is crucial that public scrutiny is evidence-based and involves the exercise of judgment, not just critique or a single perspective.

What more should be done to help improve public scrutiny?

One major problem we face is the ever-growing complexity of public service delivery. This makes it increasingly difficult for scrutineers (let alone members of the public) to pin down who is responsible and accountable for what. It is becoming urgent that we make our systems of accountability less opaque and less complex. We at CfPS have recently proposed a new institution, local Public Accounts Committees to help achieve this. These would have greater powers than existing arrangements to look across all public services that affect a local area and call for national interventions if necessary.

Are there any trends people should be worried about?

The widening gap between the resources available to public scrutineers and those they should keep watch over poses a serious problem. As a recent article on the substantially different levels of resource available to the public prosecutor and those on trial for illegal phone-hacking indicates, public wrongdoing may not be so easy to expose when those with something to hide can outspend their accusers many times over. In local government, for example, staffing levels supporting local authority overview and scrutiny are at their lowest since 2004. If resourcing for public scrutiny continues to fall, incompetence, poor decisions and corruption will become ever harder to identify, highlight or prevent.