Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Transparently ludicrous

Politics and media are something which I talk about a fair amount on here (often, admittedly at far too great a length and backed up by little or no knowledge or research), but politics affects us all, and media is a vital important tool in modern politics, so excuse me for a moment if I ramble on about it for a while.

The power of the news media in modern western countries is a double edged sword. On the one hand they inform us on every aspect of day to day political life, which, as well as being useful in its own right, also ensures that any shady dealings are more likely to be brought to light, which, in an ideal world, perhaps, keeps the politicians honest. On the other hand, of course, no section of the media is without its biases, and since as a whole they have what almost amounts to a monopoly on the information the public receive about politics, they can (if not explicitly, then inadvertently) lend their own weighting to issues. This leads to small stories being blown out of proportion, while potentially more important ones are ignored. And since most of us get our opinion of what is important in politics from the media (even if we try to stay objective, none of us has time to do our own research), this colours our views of politician and the political scene.

This post isn't about my opinion of the news media and its pros and cons, though. It's about how I believe politicians can do more to help the media be the best it can. And it's about Barack Obama (I know, I have like three set topics I talk about on here, huh).

Over the last few weeks, Obama has been releasing video clips addressing the public, describing his (and his soon-to-be-administration's) views on the issues of the moment (usually the economy, so far, unsurprisingly). These have been received well in general, and allow Obama to try to keep a human face on his presidency, as he descends into the maelstrom of bureaucracy and spin that is the White House.

The clips are being released on YouTube, as well as various other places, and are in keeping with the Obama campaigns ability to use the web effectively as a tool for organisation and communication. Looking at the Obama/Biden transition website confirms this too, as it outlines a huge number of policy objectives across the political spectrum, as well as invitations for the public to submit their own pressing issues to ensure that nothing has been forgotten.

In these senses, then, Obama is certainly using the internet, but I would love to see him using it more effectively and more fully. The video clips are a great gimmick, and an excellent way of connecting the administration directly to the public in a personal way, but are also too short to be of any real significance. With only three minutes per video, there's no time to really discuss the issues he raises. The video acts like a bullet point, when what I would like to see, and what I think would be more useful is a paragraph, or even an essay.

I'm not saying that the videos should be hours long and discuss each policy objective in interminable detail, indeed I think aside from the occasional longer one on a particular occasion, the videos are doing as much as they can do. Instead, what I would like to see is a real flow of information out of the White House and into the public eye. Not necessarily through the single outlet of the press room and the news media, but through the internet. The problem with a three minute video clip is that it forces a politician to sound the way they sound on the election trail, vague, well meaning, optimistic, and idealistic. Full of soundbites and slogans to catch the viewers interest. But sometime we want more than that, especially once the election is over, and the real work of governing begins. We want to know why decisions were made, why one policy is preferred to another, why this tax is going up and this one is going down, why this law is being repealed, and that one is being tightened. Exactly why, too. Not a soundbite, but an argument, backed up with statistics. And a public argument, facing up to the concerns and fears of the voters and of the political opposition. Not spin, unless you describe any government release as spin, but an honest account of what the government is doing, day to day, meeting to meeting, law to law.

Imagine a database of public-directed, government-released information, accessible online (and I'm not talking just about America and Obama here, he was merely the trigger for this - it can be imagined for any country). Kind of a combination of a rolling manifesto and the responses to petitions on the Downing street website. Every policy decision outlined in as much detail as possible. Opposition questions and complaints predicted and addressed (and with the database updated with new responses as new queries arise). An account of every vote and every meeting. Every government study and independent body would have their results released here, and every law discussed would be spelled out and broken down.

If a government is confident in their stance on a particular issue, then there should be no problem with this sort of public log of their intentions, their progress and their successes. And if a government is not confident of allowing public scrutiny of their intentions and decisions, then I would suggest that those intentions and decisions may need to be re-thought.

This kind of undertaking would be the best possible way to inform the public on government intentions and reasoning. The public, the media and the opposition would all be able to look at the argument put up by the government (and backed up by statistics and testimony) before responding. The government would be able to clearly and easily respond to specific concerns raised by any of these bodies, and it would be much harder for the party in power to be accused of dodging questions, or avoiding giving straight answers.

By building up a database of the governmental thought process, as it were, an administration also protects themselves to some extent against future queries about previous decisions. Why did the government decide to spend rather than save at this point? Well let's check the records and find the exact reasoning. Why was this policy supported, rather than something more strict, or more relaxed? Here's an article describing the pros and cons of each option, and the decisions that were taken in getting to a final choice. Links are provided, of course, to transcriptions or minutes of appropriate meetings and to any statistical reports or data used in the process.

Logistically, clearly, it is not something that could just be created overnight, and it would need to be built up over time (maybe it's even so impractical that it would be impossible to find the money or the manpower to support it), but I can't see any real reason why it would not work as a concept, and it seems to me that this kind of transparency would be a great antidote to the constant accusations of spin levelled at politicians.

Have the database run by an independent body if necessary, to avoid claims of government interference, ensure all data changes are logged, and all changes and additions read and approved by someone in some kind of authority.

Of course, all of this is based on my possibly ludicrously idealistic notion that it is possible to have a spin-free government, that takes responsibility for all of its actions, works constantly for the good of the country rather than the good of the party, and is confident enough about itself to be open, honest and accountable at all times. If that sort of government is something that can never happen, then the idea of any kind of transparent record of activity is clearly a pipe dream, and the best we can hope for is the twice-filtered reports from the news media. Though the idea that honest government is impossible would, I think, be a rather depressing outlook.

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