Everybody, it seems, is talking about change. Obama got elected with the promise of ‘change’, and now that promise of ‘change’ looks empty as his approval rating from the main street has started sinking. Britain goes to poll today where Cameron again plays on the change-card from the 13-year old labor-Government that seems to have landed Britain in an economic mess (true, much of the developed world is in the same boat).

The big question that must be hounding Obama (and others in Government) is what to change in Government to get people’s support and trust back in the democratic institutes of the Government in the 21st century. This also needs an understanding whether and how people’s expectations from Governments have undergone (are the citizens responsible by becoming hopelessly Pollyanna-ish in their expectations from Governments?) any changes over the last few decades; and if so, why.

Asking the right question (‘What does Government therefore mean in the 21st century Information age’) is more important than finding the right answer.  It’s so because there probably isn’t any single ‘right answer’.

The question is pertinent as increasingly, citizens’ trust in Governments across nations, more so in democratic forms of government that had developed in the west and got adopted by most other nations subsequently, has been on the falling side. Increasingly, it seems that ‘Government of the people, by the people, for the people’ isn’t working anymore. And citizens get frustrated as after all; it’s a Government they themselves decided (out of available choices). [China isn’t a democracy; and findings within China indicate more than 80% of the people support the actions of their Government (unprecedented in most democracies with free information flow and free expression of rights). However western media mostly paints a different picture on China on same issue. We really don’t know the truth about this issue in China, and therefore it’s better to keep China (and similar nations where information flow may not be free and fair) beyond the scope of this article].  

History may or may not be helpful when unprecedented things happen as the society has lately been changing with an overdose of information. Information leads to knowledge; and knowledge has been acknowledged to be the real source of power since ages. Government is supposed to be the most powerful entity within any modern nation. However the (actionable) knowledge of most Governments on the priorities of the respective nations may not often be the best as per the knowledge of its own citizens. I noted ‘actionable knowledge’ because there may be instances where a Government has the right knowledge of priorities, but does not act on that list of priority due to vested or other reasons (or procedural difficulties).

One may look at history to seek answer to a similar question – on the role of the Church on society in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, specifically before and after the arrival of the printing press. The impact started to be felt nearly fifty years after the arrival of the printing press (around 1455). It continued for the next few centuries. All that happened in society post the printing press era was not necessarily a direct result of the printing press; but indirectly they originated because of the printing press.

The printing press changed the mental map of individuals and that of the society. People started asking questions based on the emergence of a free press than accepting things as it had been before, and when not satisfied with the archaic answers the authorities provided; they themselves tried finding out the right answers – be through scientific innovations or through public recourses.

Today’s information evolution has handed a printing press to anyone connected with any form of ICT devices, be it the Internet, mobile, radio or cable TV channels. It has not only given us ownership of a printing press; it has also given the public a control of the distribution channels of the printed content (with multi-media content, it’s no longer limited to age-old printed forms). It has also empowered the public with the ability to find (search) the information from anywhere, anytime; and communicate with other like-minded members. The urge to have the right information to improve the life-style of individuals or that of society collectively through desired actions seems to be more with individuals of society than that with members of the Government.The individual works on his individual priorities amidst that ocean of information whereas the Government seems to be losing its radar of priorities often in the same ocean of information.

[Increasing fragmentation, a result of above and as observered lately within any society, may also be another indirect result of this information age.]

The individual can take decisions based on that information and start acting instantly on that decision; that’s not true with all functions of Government and its various institutes. So Government seems to be tending fires much after the fire has broken out (and individuals taking care of themselves individually or falling victims to that fire) and by the time the Govternment senses what caused that fire (and how to stop its repetition in future); another bigger fire emerges elsewhere. A genuine willingness to stop the fire may also be missing in many-a-Government; it may rather be a stage-managed show to highlight the efforts as Governments often neglect reforming the roots of the problems due to a conflict of interest.

It’s all about having clarity of priorities in Government in managing the information flow, taking sort of real time decisions based on that information, and executing actions on that information again as soon as possible. A well-executed example of it can be in the 53 hours 20 minutes ordeal that the U.S. Government took in arresting Faisal Shahzad, the suspect behind the unsuccessful attempt to detonate a car bomb in Times Square. This process also went through its ups and downs. However there also are similar demands citizens across the world have been having from their respective Governments that demand an equally responsive Government, more so when their individual lives in larger groups have been facing livelihood challenges.

Are Governments a fractional responsive when many of us are facing similar challenges in our individual lives, be it in terms of being unemployed (in the developed world) or living without basic healthcare (in the developing ones)?

National security is a top priority for any nation. It’s rightfully so. The misplaced priorities arise when issues pertaining to quality of lives of its ordinary groups of citizens come. Should Government be taking care of those who have been capable of taking good enough care of themselves when there are others who have been struggling to take basic care of themselves, and may not be getting best support from Government-machinery or adequate resources from the Government?

No form of Government can adopt perfect ‘mass-customization’ in its policies that can attend each individuals’ needs in order of an well established and accepted list of priorities. Is the priority of the U.S. Government is to ensure banks survive and become healthy through market recovery of the Wall Street; or is it in the creation of employment for the main street?  Is the priority in Greece today is to cut costs in Government in a merciless manner to satisfy the buyers of its bonds; or is it to examine better how such cost cuts affect its citizens? Is the priority in facing Naxalism in India is to fight with the Naxals to eliminate them and create pockets of prosperity through industries in those mining belts (the argument goes that it would eventually lead to development in those under-developed areas); or is it first to develop those areas without evicting the tribal-people living in those mining resources; and then try and find how best to exploit those mines?

People with basic economic knowledge would immediately find the ‘chicken-and-egg’ economic causality relationship in these lists of priorities. One can’t create jobs if the capital market isn’t healthy. Governments can’t borrow for social projects benefiting its vulnerable sections if fiscal prudence is lost. Social development in Indian tribal belts can’t come without industrializations involving private sectors.

All of the above are economic hypotheses, often granted to be right when a study found that most economic hypotheses (or almost all) fail at levels at which they can be generalized to be sort-of true. There aren’t jobs getting created fast enough in spite of recovery in the Wall Street (could it have worked out better the other way, i.e. more jobs for main street through Government spending in infrastructures, as China did, leading to a market recovery?). Government may not be borrowing for benefits of main streets directly; but Government may be doing the same when it comes to safe-guarding the interests of the banks and industries in the pretext of trickle-down effect. And the mining resources in Indian tribal belts remain unexploited for years in stuck-up projects with billions of dollars of costs and time over-runs. The tribal-society opposing the mining projects hasn’t developed; neither has industrialists been able to make money on whatever investments they made.

Part II and the concluding part of the article can be found here

The author is a Professor at IIFT, Kolkata. He can be followed at Twitter @ http://twitter.com/RanjiGoswami

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