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Hope and the Democratisation of Governance

Gordon Brown Speaking at McEwan Hall, University of Edinburgh

Speaking at the University of Edinburgh on a Sunday evening, Gordon Brown remembered officially loaning (from the Government Art Collection) ‘Hope’, a painting by George Frederic Watts, to Barack Obama. The painting, which is also displayed at the Tate, had inspired Obama’s book ‘The Audacity of Hope’. Perhaps, even his famous ‘Hope Campaign’. Having studied art history, one is often reminded of the unfortunate fact that art appreciation is a privileged activity and is enjoyed by ‘the very few’. I remember arguing with a friend once, if the democratisation of art means bringing the art to the masses, or bringing the masses to the art. While I will leave that to the art critics, what concerns me now is something that both Brown and Obama were involved with – the democratisation of governance.

The 2008 financial crisis, during Brown and Obama’s time in office, led to the launch of a new phenomenon of open governance. Since people had lost trust in their elected representatives, governments started ‘opening up’ and actively reaching out to civil society. However, Nobel Prize winning economist Holmström believes there is a downside to governance being made more open, and to policies being formed collaboratively. Essentially, Holmström argues, governance is being brought down to the people. The trouble is that, i. people are concerned only with that what is more visible and ii. there is a systematic appropriation of specialised knowledge for the public to understand. An example of this appropriation of visible policies is when they are communicated through popular media channels. Therefore, when referendums are being tweeted about using 140 (now 280) characters – i. one should be concerned about all other policies that are not being tweeted about, and ii. one can be certain that essential information about the referendum itself is being lost.

However, quite unremarkably, ‘civil society’ has become a silver bullet. A bullet that is not carefully deliberated but hastily shot. Having been a part of ‘meetings’, one has seen the systematic sidelining of civil society. Meetings that ensure civil society attendance but refuse to include any comments or questions from the floor in the minutes. Public consultations that gather embarrassingly low levels of responses. More commonly, the populist polarisation of political and economic issues. Despite these flaws in the common understanding of how we engage civil society, one observes how often it is tossed into the maelstrom of issues we face today. There appears to be a structural issue with how we practice civil society engagement. Naturally, this is particularly interesting for a civil society organisation like the United Nations House. Civil society engagement and involvement is a precious and potent idea, it’s practice, however, needs a careful and quick rethinking.

Hope (1886) by George Frederic Watts and assistants, Tate London.

Brown writes in his yet-to-be-released autobiography about the painting by George Frederic Watts, “a lone blindfolded girl sitting on a globe and trying to play a lyre whose strings are broken”. The metaphor aptly fits the lone girl tokenistic state of civil society. With platforms like open governance, the blindfold has been removed. All we need now is to mend the lyre, and hear, as Lord Byron writes – her “notes of fire”.

Atishay Mathur is a TEDx Speaker and works on Governance and Impact Assessment at the United Nations House in Scotland. He was recently awarded an MSc in International Development (with Distinction) from the University of Edinburgh. He is also a member of the Cross Party Group on International Development at the Scottish Parliament and the Sustainable Development Goals Network in Scotland.

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