Our complacency puts Democracy under threat

Our complacency puts Democracy under threat
Elizabeth Longworth

Wellington, September 3, 2019

Standfirst: Survival of New Zealand’s democracy faces unprecedented threats over the next thirty years: (a) Risks from systemic global economic instability (b) Major upheaval from adaptation (or not) to climate change (c) Dislocation arising from automated and intelligent machines.

A Kiwi characteristic that could severely impede our capacity to respond, is the complacency of “she’ll be right.”

Actually, it won’t be! Democracies need to be nurtured and supported – or risk having them turn into something else.

Four Critical Steps

There are four critical steps to shore up our democracy and sustain it.

Use the Public Service Bill to encourage open government: Firstly, treat the proposed changes to the State Sector as a future-proofing process.

The commitment of Government to improving transparency is also a core tenet of Open Government. The intention is to modernise the Public Service to tackle interdependent challenges in an integrated manner. 

But there is a missed opportunity if the Bill fails to give impetus to a much more dynamic relationship between Government and the public – one which requires far more commitment to citizen consultation and engagement than is currently accepted in the Bill’s background documents.

Parliament Buildings in Wellington (Photo Courtesy: NZ Parliament)

Overhaul the Official Information Act 1982: Secondly, overhaul the OIA, which predates the digital transformation in online communication and data storage. There are many issues to consider while evolving a freedom-of-information regime to a digital environment.

The current mentality of interpreting Open Government as a largely passive concept should change. It will be necessary for agencies to redirect, and even shepherd, requests through the OIA process.

Educate to discern the truth: The confluence of our reliance on social media, the value of accessing big data, and, the potential for manipulation of our biases, all conspire to exert undue influence over our individual view of the world.

Overseas experience with manipulation of voters’ social media, questions the extent to which an election can now be considered “free and fair.” 

So, it is critical to make a conscious effort to educate New Zealanders about how to discern what is “truth’ – what is fact versus perception – and how to verify or assess trusted online sources.  It is essential to raise awareness of the implications of how algorithms work and their potential to influence our technology content and use.

Kiwi youth as Kaitiaki: The fourth imperative rests with Kiwi youth as Kaitiaki (trustees, custodians), to guard against complacency. We need a national awareness to re-invigorate and modernise the notions of civic engagement and citizenship.

Dynamic and rights-based education programmes could be designed for communities, schools and social media use, so as to “reinterpret” the application of Open Government.

The focus would be on how to engage in policy debate and acquire the tools and expertise to participate in decision-making processes. 

A key objective is to emphasise the accountability of leaders to be transparent about their policies and political agendas. This could be a youth-led movement if it turned on those issues of profound significance affecting the future of the next generation. 

Time to prepare our democracy for the future: While submissions to the ‘State Sector Act Reform 2018’ closed last year, the drafting of the emergent Public Service Bill can be responsive to this unique opportunity.

With objectives based on principles of full and enhanced participation, the new Public Service Act can be empowering of greater levels of civic involvement.

The Public Service Bill presents a unique opportunity to ensure that our democracy: (a) Has a strong and vibrant base, capable of carrying the people with it (b) Is built on the principles of full and enhanced participation, transparency and a revamped concept of civic engagement, namely civic activism.

Elizabeth Longworth is a Guest Author and the above article was written in her private capacity. She was a Campaigner for New Zealand’s OIA legislation in 1980s. The article is a summary of her original article. 
The following links are relevant to the Public Service Bill currently being processed (submissions closed last year):
TINZ review of progress https://www.transparency.org.nz/newsletter/transparency-times-july-2019/#think-broad-public-service-sector-changes-ahead
State Services Commission’s current info at http://www.ssc.govt.nz/resources/consultation-state-sector-act-reform/ 

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