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Why independence matters for a democracy...and what the heck is an ombudsperson?!?

Remember this definition of accountability, from a previous post:

"the relationship between the local population and their representatives, and the mechanisms through which citizens can ensure that decision-makers are answerable for decisions made."
 - from theInstitute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance

In British Columbia (Canada) there are over 2800 local and public authorities, not including actual government offices or departments. Sufficed to say, that's a lot of decision makers. How are citizens supposed to make sure decision-makers are answerable?

This is the intended role of the ombudsperson (previously ombudsman). This office is an independent agent that has the power to investigate and examine the activities of public officials and bodies. An ombudsperson is intended to represent the interests of the public, those served by public bodies, and make determinations about whether their actions are aligned with policy and legislation, to examine possible violati…
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Does an efficient public service destroy community accountability?

New Public Management is an approach to running public service organizations (government services), and civil service generally, focused on service delivery that is efficient, business-like, and that incorporates market based principles. It includes management techniques and practices drawn from the private sector, allowing public servants to contract out services through competitive contracting, and focused on the professionalized delivery of public services.

The problem is...this approach may result in a loss to democratic accountability.

In a previous post we outlined two key dimensions to accountability; 1) understanding and monitoring decisions that are made, and 2) access to trustworthy information. Public administration, and the notion of public service, was traditionally focused on accountability to constituents via centralized control, and reporting to, defined government ministries and departments. This model is far from perfect; centralized bureaucracies are problematic in …

Accountability: getting information about public the public

When it comes to democracy one term that gets floated around often is the notion of accountability. But what does accountability actually mean? What does it look like?

Further, in the context of government bodies, elected representatives, and the myriad different organizations that provide civil services in our communities, how does accountability happen? And what's required for a community institution to be able to say it is accountable?

The answer is different, for different institutions. For example, we often focus on the accountability of elected officials and government representatives. But what about Crown corporations, or state companies? In Canada, Crown corporations are publicly held entities that provide a public service, but that are not directly managed or overseen by any elected official. The first federal Crown Corporation was the Canadian National Railway, established in 1922, and there are now a diverse array of publicly owned autonomous public entities in diverse s…

Collaborative Governance in Action

Government: one participant amongst many

In a previous post we highlighted the need to go beyond voting for robust democratic participation. But if that's the case then the question becomes - how? Where do we create places for collaboration, discussion, and dialogue surrounding key issues facing our communities?

One possibility is to set up opportunities for collaborative governance. Now remember, governance is distinct from government; governance refers to decision-making practices and structures, and alsothe broader systems in which decisions about our communities are made. A government is a specific entity endowed with decision-making authority over something.

Collaborative governance simply refers to decision-making where multiple different organizations are involved. In these forums, governments are one of the participants amongst many, as opposed to being the sole arbiter over final decisions. Decision-making takes place between both state and non-state entities, and authori…

State government: not necessary for democracy

Got your attention?

This statement may seem counter-intuitive, but it may very well be true. Democracy can mean a whole lot of things, but it does not necessarily require or imply state government. A state can be thought of as a political entity, typically with perceived sovereignty over some geographic territory, a single unified government, and a monopoly on the legal deployment of an army or other enforcement agency. If we understand democracy as structures and processes for people to make decisions about their communities, then are any of the above items necessary?

You might think the answer is yes - that at the least we need some kind of unified government. But what if we define government more holistically as systems and structures that govern some kind of organized community? Is this possible without the additional features of a state: geographic sovereignty, a single unitary government, and a monopoly on organized force?

I would suggest that yes, it might be possible. Conside…

...or is ideology here to stay? The case for a new golden rule: "shared values first"

In the last post I made the case that perhaps, if we could engage in political discourse without ideology, we might find more synergies between seemingly opposite points of view. Is it possible to break down polarized politics by removing ideology from the equation, and focusing on specific policies, localities, and data?

Political scientists such as Boris DeWiel would suggest that the answer is no; that politics is fundamentally a contest of values, and political discourse boils down to alternate conceptions of a "good" society. His book, Democracy: A History of Ideas, reminds us that our political differences are often the result of the values that are most important to us. For some: personal and individual liberty, for others: equality and fairness. These values are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and there's nothing inherently wrong with values such as these. Our difficulties begin when we prioritize a given value over another, and focus on a particular value at …

What would democracy look like without ideology?

The two men look at each other, and the conversation ends. The tension is palpable, with a haze of uncertainty hovering where there was once jubilant discourse. They had been drinking together for just over an hour, reminiscing about old times, family, and the highs and lows of parenting toddlers. Upon the realization that one of them was a conservative, and the other a liberal, a veil of awkward self-doubt had imposed itself in the midst of the intimate discussion. With their political preferences revealed, how could a conversation possibly ensue?

What is it about ideology (or political preferences, ideals, or whatever) that infuses our political discourse and severs the deeper connections we might have with one another? How does the political system in which we're situated require our preferences and ideals to be aggregated into leanings across some imagined spectrum?

What would it make possible if we practiced democracy and politics without ideology? Would this hamper or furth…