opendatastudy

Research on Open Data and Transparency

Monitoring, Democracy and Citizens: Some thoughts

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SWinson

 

Over the last decade a host of new formal and informal ‘political observatories’ watch and hold government to account (Schudson 2010). It has been argued that ‘scores of power-scrutinising and power-checking mechanisms’ create a ‘monitory democracy’, a ‘continuous surveillance’ by formal and informal bodies (watchdogs or observatories) which ‘keep arbitrary power on its toes…taming its excesses and evils’ (Keane 2018, 14).

These new ‘power-monitoring institutions’ draw on a growing armoury of low cost transparency tools (Schudson 2015, Keane 2009, Welzel and Dalton 2016). They range from formal, legal openness regulations all the way to the ‘radical transparency’ or ‘vigilantism’ of WikiLeaks. They can be general or targeted, sector-specific or body-specific. Some parts of the new system are made up of formal oversight bodies such as auditors or inspectors while others, such as Open Data, offer structured means of accessing government information and data. Others are more dynamic and less controlled instruments, from social media to mass leaks. Together these bodies form part of the ‘unending, never finished public business of scrutinising and restraining power’ (Keane 2018, 18).

Though it is has been created piecemeal since 1945, such monitoring has taken on a new force in the last few decades, powered by the growth of networks and the information revolution. Whether it is a new layer ‘atop’ the old institutions of representative democracy, exists in parallel or supplants it is unclear (Keane 2009: 2018). Keane argues that such monitoring replaces the ‘hollowed out’ older institutions and party systems and offers a new means  of checking power, over and above the static and limited accountability created by elections (see Mansbridge 2009).

The full effect of these hybrid formal and informal oversight bodies is to create a ‘permanent’ and ‘continuous’ oversight of government (see Hooghe, M., & Dejaeghere 2007; Schudson 2015, 237). They are closely related to Rosanvallon’s (2008) conceptions around ‘counter-democracy’ and the use of tools of ‘prevention’, ‘oversight’ and ‘judgement’ to counter institutional power.

Whether such activity is positive or negative remains a matter of some dispute, as does the question of whether such action merely ‘monitors’ government or becomes a true locus of ‘counter-availing’ democratic power. It is based around a series of assumptions around how institutions, and those monitoring and monitored behave, including the need for clear institutional narratives and relative civic agreement (Graves 2017).

Questions and issues for the project

Theory

The concept of monitory democracy is rather unclear and undeveloped in number of ways. First, for monitory democracy to have an effect requires a certain set of behaviours from those monitored. In terms of legislatures and MPs, their behaviour has always been ‘quasi performative’ and open (Pitkin 1974). The presentation of the ‘self’ has always been a ‘promissory note’ whereby members ‘stockpile explaining ammunition’ (Fenno 1978, 142). Voting data, for example, has always been a cause of concern for members of legislatures, who fear what a few well informed voters obsessed with an issue could do (Fenno 1978). So the new data may mean a greater loss of control, especially if it easier to access, but the effect may not be so different from the past. It also depends very much on who does or does not use this data. A member would be far more concerned if members of the local party or very strong supporters were critical than, for example opponents in the local area (Fenno 1978). Similarly, media exposes of ‘rebellion’ could cut-either way.

Second, the exact outcomes are rather hazy-labelled as a kind of continuous ‘accountability’, through exposure or anticipated reactions, as well as the creation of ‘humility’ and limits on political behaviour (Keane 2018). There has also been some challenge to the idea it is ‘continuous’ but instead is only ‘good enough’ (see Lucas 2017). It may also have the opposite effect, especially with a complex body like Westminster. As Strathern (2000) argues, ‘visibility conceals’ for example, the ‘real facts’ of how an organisation functions, such as relationships, networks, skills and ‘invisible processes’ (314). Monitoring can also, by Keane’s admission, cause ‘conflict’, delegitimise and be used to ‘muck rake’ (see Keane 2013).

Monitory democracy seeks scrutiny, restraint and accountability, but there may be a long and weak link between them. If monitoring has taken place how does it then turn into something that restrains? Much depends on if those tools exists or work. To bring about accountability, restraint or change at Westminster monitoring must lead to, for example, shifts in voting patterns, attempted removal by parties or through recall laws. In fact, two of the three uses of the new UK Recall Act 2015 were driven by a ‘monitorial’ exposure of expenses and register of interests respectively, while one MP’s voting record was mention formally at least in one local party attempt to remove them (Dominic Grieve). In this sense, monitor democracy is not so remote from central democratic ideas of (i) anticipatory (ii) reactive (iii) exposure and appears tangled up in older forms of representation (Weale 2004).

Third, one major area left unclear is the central idea of representation-what does the rise of monitory democracy, used potentially by unrepresentative groups, mean for who, or how an institution represents? Does monitory democracy mobilise too much bias?

An alternative approach that could be used is to conceptualise monitorial democracy more broadly as producing and exposing new lines of democratic conflict and new spirals of battles, mobilising and involvement (Schattschneider 1960). Conflict is inherent in democracy. The heart of this conflict is the ‘long standing struggle between the competing tendencies towards privatising and socialising of conflict’ (Schattschneider 1960, 7). Attempts at exposure or closure ‘creates a chain reaction’ with a ‘fight is difficult to contain’ as different sides famously ‘mobilise bias’ (Schattschneider 1960, 2). Monitory democracy does this far more quickly than in the past, and opens up new areas to scrutiny and conflict. Looking at it through this lens should allow a wider view of the positive and negative impact.

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