Wednesday, 15 December 2010

What is the role of government?

Reaction to the leaked US diplomatic cables reveals an uncomfortable truth in the attitude of those elected to represent us

The perceived roles of government are diverse and differ depending on to whom you speak.  For some the role of government is to provide jobs and a stable economy, for others it’s there to support the disadvantaged and vulnerable via the welfare state, for others its simply exists to provide a stable environment in which the economy can grow and private organisations can profit; by producing a growing consumer base, a suitably educated workforce or in extremis defending the realm.  For most, it’s probably a mixture of all of the above.
On a more fundamental level the role of government is much simpler, defined by a basic principle, upon which competing interpretations of its functions and priorities compete.  For those fortunate enough to live in a representative democracy (the overwhelming majority of Europe and the Americas) the primary function of government is to represent and serve those that have elected it.  The clue is in the name and it is ultimately answerable to the electorate.  For those executive functions and personnel that are not directly elected such as civil servants, their role is to serve the elected members who appoint them to assist in the service of the electorate.  This can be viewed as a linear relationship; at the top the electorate, below them the elected members (government ministers et al) that are elected to serve their interests and directly beneath the them at the bottom are the civil service that serve the government.  It’s a simplistic model, having no place for the private sphere, but it serves to illustrate the basic structure on which modern society is built.

The leaking of US diplomatic cables and Afghanistan files by Wikileaks during recent months have called into question the nature of the relationship between citizen and government.  Government officials, media and citizens from across the US, Europe, the Middle East and beyond have sought to criticise the leaks on two fronts; that they put lives in danger and that some information should not be shared with the public.  Diplomats and civil servants should, according to this analysis, be free to operate in secrecy above and beyond the knowledge and concerns of the citizens to whom they are ultimately answerable.  This represents a significant shift from the linear structure of the relationship between citizen, government and civil service described above to something considerably more ambiguous.  This new structure more clearly resembles an inverted pyramid; the electorate at the bottom and elected officials and the civil service above, side by side.  This structure illustrates that the  government and its unelected functions operate on an equal footing and in cooperation, neither directly responsible to each other or the electorate that serve them. 

To claim that this structure exists in reality rather than in the minds of those that have sought to criticise the leaks is actually a moot point.  More importantly the whole affair demonstrates that an attitude pervades both governments and media that free sharing of information is undesirable, that those in power should not have to adhere to principles of transparency nor be answerable to those that appointed them, to whom they are responsible.  This belief that ordinary citizens are incapable of understanding nor have the right to this information betrays an inherent arrogance and more than a whiff of authoritarianism.

This attitude has been further demonstrated in the pressure applied to private organisations that have provided support to Wikileaks.  The image of the internet as independent and beyond the power of governments has been utterly shattered as state pressure has been used to prohibit the actions of citizens, specifically from gaining knowledge of those appointed to serve them.  The United States has blocked access to the Wikileaks website, Mastercard and Visa have denied their customers across the globe the right to choose whether or not to spend their money supporting an independent organisation, knowledge of corrupt practices by Pfizer and Shell, which are undoubtedly in the public interest, are viewed as state secrets that should be hidden from the public.  That much of the information leaked is of little surprise or in many cases much tamer than expected, is inconsequential.  The image rendered is of insecure governments clinging desperately to as much control as possible as it slowly ebbs away.

Sadly the shift from in attitude from the linear to the inverted pyramid model described above may never have occurred.  It is perhaps more evident that the last century represents a shift toward a less authoritarian stance as education and knowledge continued to diffuse throughout societies and across national boundaries.  The post 9/11 authoritarian tendencies were a  reaction – that have since lost momentum - to external threats of a once in a generation magnitude  and the Freedom of Information act highlighted the desire for those in power to illustrate their transparency and good intentions (though Tony Blair’s confession that he now considers it a huge mistake is perhaps a hint of how power can breed arrogance).

That progress has been made toward the synchronization of what we are lead to believe and what actually occurs in reality is simply not enough; these insights into the machinations of power only serve to highlight that much more progress must be made.  If knowledge is power, then it is imperative that these leaked documents continue to pour into the public domain.  

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