Tag Archives: governance

How new is the new openness?

By Helen Pallett


Image credit: By Aaron Pruzaniec

It seems that openness is in the air. Open access and open data have been the hot topics of the last few years in conversations in academia and are increasingly the subjects of broader societal debate, and open government and open policy have recently moved swiftly up the political agenda in the UK. From October 31st to November 1st the British Government hosted the annual summit of the Open Government Partnership, an international platform supporting reformers aiming to make governments more open and accountable to their citizens. The London summit was significant in that it demonstrated commitment to the principles of openness from some parts of the higher echelons of the Government, and some international actors such as the chief innovation officer for the World Bank. Most notably, Cabinet Office minister Frances Maude has been at particular pains to emphasise the ambition and sincerity of his message of transparency and openness (for example see this video).

There is also a distinctly geographical aspect to this new openness as Sarah Elwood and Agnieszka Leszczynski have argued in a recent paper in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. Elwood and Leszczynski highlight the diversity of new spatial media available – from Google Earth, to twitter’s GeoAPI and location based social network apps like Foursquare. These media combine open and crowd sourced data with geographic information techniques and technologies, with the potential to enhance the abilities of activities, civic, grassroots, indigenous and other marginalised groups to challenge government actors and hold them to account. Far from being add-ons to a plethora of existing techniques available to activists and others, the authors argue that spatial media have the potential to advance alternative strategies for establishing the authority of knowledge claims, through for example, structuring visual experience, providing immediate and experiential cartographic representations, and through asserting credibility through mutual witnessing between peers and transparency of methods.

But an earlier paper from the same journal exploring a different kind of democratic innovation counsels us to be more cautious in our heralding of the success and potential of the ‘new openness’. In 1999 Rob Imrie and Mike Raco examined the promise of and assumptions around what was then being called the new local government in the UK. The conventional wisdom around these developments at the time, with powers being increasingly being moved from local government to the central government, was that the older form of governance with a stronger local government had been more open and democratically accountable, whilst increasingly geographically centralised governance sought to close off debate. Through an exploration of how these governance changes were playing out in two UK cities, Imrie and Raco actually found a diversity of democratic practices at play, many of which showed strong continuities with what was characterised as the old governance. Their point, something which I think is more broadly applicable to other changes in democratic practice, was not to take announcements of change and newness at face value; not to be swept away by the hype and discursive contestation around a new policy initiative without first taking a closer look at the tapestry of democratic and policy practices being enacted around it.

With respect to the ‘new openness’ of open government, open policy and the rest, this suggests that geographers need not only to be aware of opportunities to support such initiatives by contributing to debates and refining practices, as Elwood and Leszczynski argue, but also to empirically investigate these claims to newness. Which previous democratic practices do these approaches to open government transform or uphold? Alongside high profile demonstrations of openness in government, can we also find examples where opportunities for openness are ignored, or even actively obscured? Does a focus purely on openness risk eclipsing existing practices which are being exploited by civil society actors and others for democratic ends? Through this we can create a richer picture of democratic change and continuity in the UK, and also help to hold government actors to account.

books_icon Rob Imrie & Mike Raco 1999 How New is the New Local Governance? Lessons from the United KingdomTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers 24: 45-63

books_icon Sarah Elwood & Agnieska Leszczynski 2012 New spatial media, new knowledge politicsTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers 38: 544-559

60-world2 Open government: a chance to revolutionise the relationship between citizens and their leaders Guardian, November 7

60-world2 Francis Maude: ‘Transparency is not a feelgood accessory’ (video) Guardian, November 5

Pirates of the Web or the Waves: A Conundrum of Governance

by Jen Turner

At the end of October, The Finnish Supreme Court rejected a case from an Internet Service Provider (ISP) fighting an enforced ban of file-sharing website The Pirate Bay.  The BBC reported that the ruling signaled the end of a long court battle between ISP Elisa and copyright bodies in the country.  The Pirate Bay, which offers links to pirated content, has caused controversy in other areas too.  The website is now also banned in the UK, the Netherlands, and Italy.

However, internet rights groups say the bans represent a worrying rise in levels of net censorship – a concern which is shaped by changes in the management of the World Wide Web. Control of the internet and its logistical arrangements stems from agreements made under the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a specialist UN agency that dates back to 1865.  Now, the ITU is suggesting new proposals which would mean internet companies like Google paying generous fees to local telecoms companies.  These plans would disrupt the balance between the US internet giants and telecom firms across the world.  Administration and organisation of the internet has been dominated by the US since Arpanet, the precursor to the modern internet, was established between four US universities in 1969, and a handful of US-controlled authorities followed.

Google has battled hard in campaigns surrounding the open web and the media-genic issues of free speech and-anti censorship that other ITU proposals allude to. However, as Jemima Kiss reports, for a company worth £150bn, taxes to telecom firms would be payable on every interaction with its 700 million or so daily users.    Perhaps this challenge to Western dominance is an important one, raising issues about how these seemingly placeless entities are controlled.

In similar vein, Kimberley Peters’ recent article in Area explores governance outside of territorial boundaries in political discussion of the geographies of the sea.  Using the example of offshore broadcasting stations such as Radio Caroline, Peters explains the ramifications that ‘pirate’ stations had on the governance of sea-space.  By explaining actions carried out within Britain’s borders, and the international space of the ‘high seas’, this paper recognises how this response challenged Britain’s long-held ideology of maritime freedom.

If we consider both the web and the waves in light of their non-territorial character, we can find similarities in the challenges for regulating them – acknowledging the conundrum for governing these kinds of spaces.

Kimberley Peters, 2011, Sinking the radio ‘pirates’: exploring British strategies of governance in the North Sea, 1964–1991Area 43 281-287

Jemima Kiss, Who controls the internet?The Guardian, 17 October 2012 

Pirate Bay appeal is rejected by Finnish supreme court, BBC News Technology, 30 October 2012

Where’s Climate Change Gone?

By Martin Mahony

MEC's green roof among others by sookie (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Many commentators on the current US presidential election campaigns have noted – or bemoaned – a seeming conspiracy of silence when it comes to climate change. Neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney seem keen to make the issue a centrepiece of their respective campaigns, regardless of where they seem to stand on the question of how to deal climate change, or indeed whether it’s a problem at all.

In the UK, critics of the Conservative-led coalition government have been keen to point out that David Cameron’s pledge to lead the “greenest government ever” is starting to sound rather hollow. Like in the US, climate change barely figures on the national political agenda. Perhaps this could be attributed to the current primacy of economic and fiscal issues in political debate. However, it may also be indicative of a broader trend which has seen climate change governance re-scaled away from the nation-state and international negotiations, towards new networks of cities, municipalities and regional governments.

As illustrated by Harriet Bulkeley and Vanesa Castán Broto in a recent article in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, a variety of governmental practices have emerged at the urban scale which seek to address climate change mitigation and adaptation. Through diverse social and technical practices, “climate change experiments” have been enacted which have positioned mitigation and adaptation nearer to the centre of rationales for urban transition and renewal. However, far from being simply the spill-over effects of a governance system which lacks the capacity to address climate change in a formal and coherent manner, these new political spaces highlight the complex processes by which new norms and goals circulate in practice through social and technical interventions in the urban fabric.

The kind of interventions which Bulkeley and Broto discuss include formal policy measures such as the establishment of carbon markets, grassroots movements such as ‘Transition Towns’, and the development of new architectural forms which respond to the needs of energy efficiency. While such initiatives are often dismissed as being insufficient responses to the scale of the climate change challenge, Bulkeley and Broto suggest in their exciting new research agenda that analysts need to engage more seriously with the growing number of processes by which climate change is being responded to in urban settings. While climate change may have disappeared from our national political debates, it is increasingly a potent motivator of political action in our cities.

 Harriet Bulkeley and Vanesa Castán Broto, 2012, Government by experiment? Global cities and the governing of climate changeTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers, DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00535.x

 The 2012 election’s only bipartisan consensus: not to talk climate changeThe Guardian

Area Content Alert: Volume 44, Issue 1 (March 2012)

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Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers Content Alert: Volume 37, Issue 1 (January 2012)

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Geography Compass Content Alert: Volume 5, Issue 9 (September 2011)

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Big Society and Network Governance

David Cameron

David Cameron speaking on Big Society (The Guardian Online)

By Michelle Brooks

In the wake of recent comments by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams there has been renewed debate on the subject of ‘Big society’ the coalition government’s conceptual framework for social policy in the United Kingdom. Over subsequent days a debate ensued in various news media about the comment Williams made regarding democracy and the ‘policies no-one voted for’ which were rebutted by the government alongside careful remarks on the freedom to speak which the Archbishop had exercised. The idea of democracy in the United Kingdom being brought into question is perhaps so far-fetched that we are reticent in pursuing this argument, in attending to the question with the same vigour that we would perhaps afford to other nations whose political stability appears more precarious. However, the links between ‘Big society’ and democracy have been unearthed in the area of Governance, in particular, Network Governance .

Network Governance is a method of governance that involves the shrinking of state involvement in the governance of an organisation, project, or indeed as a wider philosophical project, the nation. Purpose-driven bodies are formed out of what are regarded as relevant stakeholders such as (depending on the project) utilities, entrepreneurs, community representatives, financiers, experts etc and charged with the task of design and sometimes implementation of initiatives to include but not exclusively, policy. Around this table should sit an elected member of parliament who is charged with the task of what is called ‘meta-governance’. However, few such people are capable of such a task and often delegate this role to another. Network Governance can be viewed as empowering in that local actors are able to have influence on governance activities and people with real expertise or experience are part of the planning process. However, the absence of a democratically elected representative does pose a problematic issue in that those we elect have to stand accountable for their actions, we know their face and the office where we can submit our democratically sanctioned right to complain, their career depends on our satisfaction. Network Governance (NG) does not afford us such transparency. Additionally in classic NG, contracts are socially binding as opposed to legislatively binding, hence whilst this means some community members are enabled in decision-making at a local level, at the same time the output and application of resources from the public purse are not safeguarded in a legal framework.  This is how Big Society can be described as a post-neoliberalist movement, however in fact it brings market influences much deeper into the nitty-gritty of community politics without the fail-safes of democracy. Put simply, we may not all agree with the views of the members of the network who have been given the power to bring change, importantly we didn’t elect them to this position and therefore they do not legally represent us or necessarily have the best interests of the nation at heart. In this way, concerns over a threat to democracy emerge. Grace Skogstad has looked at this through an EU lens considering what she terms ‘input legitimacy’ an increasing problem for purpose-driven bodies in the EU.

Indeed, there has been much work on localised governance in Geographical studies and in 1998, Imrie and Raco argued that new local governance was not in fact dissimilar in many ways to the old model, citing the presence of third sector actors on committees alongside councillors and indeed how the controlling of local governance by the central government powers was equally a threat to democracy. This shows that the critique of Big Society here as I have outlined is not itself unproblematic however, it is not one we can afford to ignore.

Those of us who have worked in the third sector know that the idea of big society is not a new one, neighbourhood and community based initiatives have long been present on the social landscape. Recently, many have argued this over and over in the media, however maybe this is not what the coalition government are advancing. Perhaps their idea of Big Society is one that is more concerned with governance and a political legacy. Big Society has never explicitly been billed as Network Governance, however there are some striking links between and the picture above is perhaps a clue. Perhaps as we watch so many nations fighting for democracy we should be reminded of the fragility of our own and the need to constantly nurture and protect it.

trans-updated2 read Imrie and Raco’s article in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

read Pressurised pastoralism in South Gobi, Mongolia: what is the role of drought? read Skogstad’s article in the Journal of European Public Policy

read Pressurised pastoralism in South Gobi, Mongolia: what is the role of drought? read Rowan Williams article in The New Statesman