Wednesday, 15 July 2015

The Public-Private Divide

On reflection, any sensible person can see that there are things best left to people to do on their own initiative as they see fit, and there are other activities which need to be done collectively by a larger group. Where something only matters to a single individual, it is arguably no one else’s business to get involved. But where we have concerns that are relevant to society as a whole, then it has to be everyone’s business to help address them without exception.

In between these two types of scenario, there are a wide variety of issues that call for smaller or larger associations of persons, and each may require more or less involvement from a higher body with statutory authority.

Alas, ideologues prefer to dismiss this nuanced continuum of human endeavours, and insist that there is a sharp and simple ‘Public-Private Divide’. Worse still, some of them go on to insist that everything should be ‘public’, while others take the opposite extreme and demand everything be kept ‘private’.

Post-1989, the radical communist ideology of subsuming everything into the public domain now has few adherents. The total elimination of all sense of privacy and private ownership is problematic enough in its challenge to personal motivation and the need for autonomy, but it brings out the underlying paradox of having to enforce any kind of ‘everything is public’ system by means of vesting power and resources in the hands of an elite group of private individuals with little accountability to the wider public.

Unfortunately, the rampant laissez-faire ideology of leaving everything to the private realm is still alive and well. Its proponents have not quite done away with government institutions altogether, but they have come a long way in shrinking the state’s role in meeting public needs, and capturing government bodies for the sole purpose of directing them to serve the private interests of a wealthy elite.

One notable symptom of the ascendancy of the laissez-faire ideologues is the widespread acceptance of wealth-creating activities as inherently private. This is not a surprising ploy given that most present day advocates for laissez faire are plutocrats, and by positioning wealth as belonging to private individuals, they provide it with an ideological shield from public intervention.

But just as the extreme ‘all is public’ ideology is exposed and rejected, the same must happen to the unrestrained ‘all is private’ creed. Wealth is what has the potential to enhance the wellbeing of people. Yet by succumbing to the ‘only the private sector creates wealth’ myth, society goes along with economic measures that classify activities that boost cancer-causing smoking, prolong vindictive litigation, or increase pollution-causing production as ‘wealth creating’. Meanwhile, when public resources are organised to teach children, treat the sick, or care for the elderly, they are considered as a ‘drain’ on the nation’s wealth.

This dubious distinction gains some superficial credence from the fact the former are viewed as voluntary acts, even if conducted with harmful consequences; whereas the latter is enforceable by law and hence assumed to be coerced. But clearly not everything resulting from a collective process is undesirable, especially when it is underpinned by an open and democratic system of decision-making. And if people democratically agree to pool together a proportion of their country’s resources so they are more able to address a whole range of common concerns, that is not a matter of coercion or draining, but a productive move that delivers real benefits for all.

By contrast, given the deception, manipulation, and unbalanced bargaining positions, which often prevail in private transactions, the value of such activities is far from intrinsically good. For example, if some ‘entrepreneur’ manages to get people to waste their money on smoking themselves to an early grave, or gamble away the savings for their family, that is not a positive act of wealth creation at all.

Simplistic ‘public-private’ dichotomies are often framed to serve either those who want to be unaccountable custodians of everyone’s wealth, or those who want to be free from all legal constraints as they dupe and exploit others in order to amass ever greater wealth for themselves. In a democratic society, we need to remember that neither extreme is desirable, and we would all be better off if we learn to allow those activities most effectively carried out by an individual, a group, a federation, or a government to be taken forward at the appropriate level.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Lifelong Learning & Everyday Governance

Schools, without exception, devote the great majority of their time to teaching academic subjects such as language, literature, mathematics, history, chemistry, biology, physics, etc. Many have argued that however important it is to have a good grasp of these subjects, a much larger proportion of time should be spent on vocational training (e.g., craft, technology, engineering) or life skills (variously grouping together skills to handle personal, social, health, financial challenges).

But proponents of all three domains of learning (academic, vocational, life skills) tend to overlook one thing that everyone needs to learn about – the art of governance. This is not to be confused with the listing of citizenship rights and responsibilities, or a recounting of the features of political institutions and electoral arrangements. Governance is about how a group of people (of whatever size) can be held together and led to cooperate for their common good.

From local residents’ and community groups, through schools and hospitals, businesses and government organisations, to multinational corporations and global political arrangements, the effectiveness of their governance impacts on the people who live within their sphere of influence.

To understand what differentiates good from poor governance, and how to steer towards the former is critical to playing a positive role in any collective entity. This involves academic learning from the political ideas on how best to govern; vocational learning from management practices on getting the most out of organisational performance; and life skills learning from interpersonal experience on relating to people constructively in a group context.

While different individuals may benefit from knowing particular academic, vocational or life skills topics, they all need to acquire real competence in contributing to (or at least not hindering) effective governance of the many institutions they are involved with in their lives. The test of governance arises every day, and not only should it be taught systematically in schools, it should be a feature of lifelong learning made accessible to every member of society.

The current absence of governance education is one of the key reasons why most people have little idea of why certain companies behave irresponsibly, some public bodies are mired in errors, or the government under particular administrations let the citizens down. They view these outcomes as mere spectators, not recognising that they can make a difference by, at a minimum, discovering what is wrong with the governance in question and backing changes that will redirect it for the better. Indeed they can go further and actively engage in shaping new policies and practices.

But what is to be taught? Instead of just explaining what constitutes a system of governance, educators must set out what the ingredients of effective governance are. Drawing from the extensive findings in political theory, management analysis, and studies of human interactions, it can with confidence be said that those responsible for any institution (and as we will see, this incorporates all who are involved with the workings of the institution and not just a few designated ‘leaders’) must put in place and sustain the following nine elements:

• Shared mission
• Mutual benefits
• Coherent membership
• Collaborative learning
• Continuous re-evaluation
• Accessible information
• Joint decision-making
• Balanced power
• Open accountability

By teaching introductory courses in schools on what these entail, developing a deeper theoretical and practical understanding through further/higher education, and sustaining continuous improvement through lifelong learning, the everyday governance of the multitude of institutions that affect all our lives will be notably better, which in turn will lead to more optimal outcomes for everyone.

As to what constitutes the basis for these nine elements and what each of them involves, see the outline presented in ‘Communitarian Governance: a 9-point guide’.