Asking questions on the public’s behalf is apparently raining on local councils’ parades. Bumming them out. Being negative.
As we’ve seen this budget season, the budget documents, and every other action of staff and councils, are simply to be accepted as is – there’s nothing to see here, move along.
Yes, all this democracy is rather inconvenient, isn’t it?
It’s questioning and demands for proof – sorry, no one’s word is good enough – that we know from the never-ending stream of spending fiascos and scandals. And an incredibly long list of bad decisions, lack of oversight and outright corruption, sadly.
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In each and every case, someone assured those asking that there was nothing to see. Move along.
No, assurances don’t mean a thing, I’m afraid. Is that cynical? Negative? I’d prefer to call it realistic. There’s no room for naiveté, be it the public trusting government or politicians trusting bureaucrats.
Like the courtroom, the whole system works best when it’s adversarial, with plenty of checks and balances against waste, incompetence and graft.
While we don’t see the kind of waste, bribery and fraud commonplace at higher levels of government here in the townships – there simply isn’t enough money available to blow a billion dollars on vote-buying schemes, for instance – the same rules apply. That means the public should expect 100 per cent accountability from municipal government. That also means local politicians must act on the public’s behalf, watching with a critical eye everything done by bureaucrats. They should be questioning everything, demanding to be sold on every proposal: no irrefutable proof for a new policy or each dollar of spending, then the answer is no.
Fact is, we don’t get that from local politicians. Nor from those at any other level, actually.
It’s a reality noted by many studies of the inherent problems associated with government bureaucracies.
“The media attention focused on elected officials leads many people to think of them as ‘the government.’ Such thinking diverts us from the recognition of a critical truth: politically articulated agendas are transformed into reality only by bureaucratic systems. Bureaucracies are the dominant means by which governments control and influence the daily lives of people throughout the world,” writes American author Hans Sherrer in one such critique.
Real representative democracy involves an active role for politicians, one that can be uncomfortable … and should be. It’s not enough just to show up and go with the flow, following an agenda set by staff.
Certainly, much of what gets done by councillors, both in and out of formal meetings, is just routine business, though some of that has to do with mindless rules, procedures and spending ideas conceived by staff and endorsed by elected officials.
Bureaucrats live in a bubble where the decisions are made to make their lives easier. They do this because they conflate their interests with the public’s, when often the opposite is true. It’s up to the politicians – who represent the people, after all – to halt such practices. That they don’t, speaks volumes.
None of this is some conspiracy, just human nature. Everyone feels overworked and underpaid. Everyone could offer up reasons for more pay, less work and additional hiring to help out. In the private sector, that’s often not feasible, given revenue constraints. Nor is it usual for the employees to set the agenda, let alone have it rubber-stamped by those in charge. In government, the opposite is true far too often, with the taxpayers paying, both in terms of funding and poor service.
An employee at, say, McDonald’s follows the prescribed duties and schedule, earns the going wage and returns a certain level of work. If the arrangement doesn’t suit him, he can seek employment elsewhere (in the absence of unionization efforts, omitted in this example). If the work isn’t up to scratch, service suffers and customers can head over to Harvey’s or other burger joint. If enough customers leave, the business suffers, so those in charge make every effort to ensure the customers are happy.
Little of that applies with government. Most importantly, the public can’t go elsewhere: we’re often stuck in long lineups only to face high prices and lousy service … and the overcooked meat-substitute “burger” we never wanted in the first place.
Worse still, the long waits and poor service are used to justify more hiring to “cure” the backlogs, with the usual results we’ve all come to experience.
Clichéd analogy? Certainly. Hyperbolic? Perhaps. Harsh? Maybe a little. Unfair? Absolutely not.
It’s incumbent on politicians to act on the responsibility that comes with the coercive power of government. It requires a higher standard to be applied to decisions, especially when taking people’s money against their will or imposing new controls on them.
“People correctly sense that they have little or no effective defense against government bureaucracies. The most terrifying and predictive aspect of novels such as Brave New World, We, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Trial, and The Rise of the Meritocracy may be their accurate portrayal of the general sense of helplessness people have against all-encompassing bureaucracies,” writes Sherrer.
It’s in that light politicians must see their role, working for the public by questioning everything. That much of the public is apathetic and resigned to poor governance does not make a do-nothing attitude acceptable.
For the media, asking questions is what the job is all about. We do that here all the time, most often applied to stories that tell of community. Positive, some would say. But that also applies to our role as a watchdog: shining a light on things, asking questions and seeking proof are part and parcel of that.
Asking questions, vetting issues publicly and providing real accountability is the role of politicians, including local councillors. Don’t take my word for it: read the job description.
Expect some pushback.
“Any sort of crisis that threatens the bureaucracy or its members triggers a closing of ranks to protect it from outside scrutiny, interference, and legal oversight,” Sherrer notes.