By Jonathan J. D’Oleo
'The more strictly we are watched, the better we behave'. ~ Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)
Governments in democratic societies are built on the principle of accountability. They are republics: governments of the people, by the people and for the people. Within the expansive and dynamic fabric of society, however, only a few get to weave, stitch, and fix the institutional garment that everyone must wear.
Such fabric is to be representative of the overall needs, wants and capabilities of the citizenry at all stages of its development. The structural impossibility of directly engaging all members of society in the complex interweaving of governmental affairs creates the need for a sort of hobbessian multi-eyed watchman to hold politicians accountable.
Acknowledging the moral hazard inherent in unsupervised activities, the renowned British jurist and philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, believed that “the more strictly we are watched the better we behave.” Following this line of reasoning, better governance can be achieved by way of increasing the surveyability of government activities in both scale and detail.
In this article I argue that whereas greater monitoring is indeed a key ingredient in improving government performance it cannot, in itself, serve as a silver-bullet-formula to optimize, democratize and thereby moralize governmental activities.
Good governance is, in fact, driven by the interaction of a wide range of elements within a solid frame of established institutional bodies. With sound institutions and surveillance as leading coefficients, a formula for good governance would include a comprehensive system of standard operating procedures, performance expectations, appropriate professional standards for entry into public service, enforceable rules and regulations, inter and intra institutional cooperation, and the free flow of information in both government and civil society.
In the late eighteenth century, Jeremy Bentham translated his ideas about surveillance into an architectural design known as the Panopticon: a circular structure that enables the observer to view everything within it from a single central point located inside premises. Originally designed to become a prison, the concept was also envisioned for schools, hospitals and psychiatric centers.
The Panopticon not only gives all-seeing capabilities to the observer, it also blocks the observed from seeing his supervisor. Not being able to determine whether or not they are being watched, the observed, according to Bentham, will be more likely to behave according to the established rules, ordinances and expectations of the institution that oversees them. This, in turn, empowers the watchman with “a mode of obtaining power of mind” over the beheld.
Bentham was extremely meticulous in fashioning his ideas. Beyond the structural logistics of the Panopticon he gave a great deal of attention to how the concept was to be effectively managed once it was put into full operation though, much to his chagrin, it never was.
Interestingly enough, he advocated for private management of the facility arguing that material rewards would be the best way to hold the contractor accountable to performance expectations. The contractor, for instance, had to pay a fine of £100 for every prisoner that escaped or died while in custody. He would also have to pay a penalty of the same amount in the event that a prisoner was convicted of a new crime after having been released from the Panopticon.
In establishing the aforementioned system of pecuniary incentives, Bentham, perhaps wearing the hat of a senior management consultant of sorts, put his eyes on keeping the observer accountable. Being unable to supervise the observer directly at all times due to resource constraints, material incentives would act as surveillance proxies to manage the managers.
Therefore, being “strictly watched” in Benthamite terms is not necessarily to be watched in the literal sense, but more so to be accountable, if not by direct surveillance, by means of performance measurement at the output and/or outcome levels.
In articulating this view of good governance and agency performance, Bentham was way ahead of the bureaucratic practices of his time.
The lack of complete output/outcome visibility in many of the activities performed in government agencies - such as schools, public health centers and prisons – makes it difficult to hold agency operators accountable.
Requesting information about unsupervised activities has, thus, become commonplace in public management. Principals demand that their agents comply with pre-established quotas, standard operating procedures and budget constraints.
Teachers, for instance, often face enormous pressure from school boards demanding that pupils perform beyond a certain threshold in standardized tests. Similarly, police officers receive credit for the number of arrests, parking and speeding tickets they issue.
Helping an old lady to the opposite side of the street, however, is seldom accounted for by the commanding officer working from police headquarters. Measuring performance in this fashion, while possibly crowding out a number of worthy activities, holds public workers accountable to what they were hired to do.
Bentham’s argument for the sub-contracting of a private company to manage the Panopticon in the 1700s holds even to this day. As a matter of fact, since the late 1970s, under the badge of New Public Management, a series of market-oriented managerial practices have been introduced to the public sector.
One of the practices that has been widely implemented as a result of these reforms is that of measuring performance by means of qualifiable and quantifiable standards like the value-for-money metric, which is, a priori, very similar to Bentham’s system of pecuniary incentives.
Unlike the private sector, government cannot put its finger on the pulse of what drives good governance by assessing balance sheets and income statements. Nonetheless, good governance can be fomented by managing public entities with private sector metrics, especially in what has to do with measuring the performance of activities that are not completely observable unto principals.
Today this idea is well understood in the field, but in Bentham’s time it was not yet an established norm nor was it a common practice in the exercise of public administration.
In determining whether Bentham’s ideas on public management and surveillance are a recipe for good governance, one must further consider the complex nature of agencies in the public sector and the manner in which they serve and interact with civil society. Moreover, a clear idea of what governance is should be defined in relation to how one is to characterize it as good or bad.
Generally speaking, in political science, governance is defined as the act of delivering public services and creating an enabling environment for the growth and wellbeing of the current and future taxpayer. Evaluating governments, thus, entails assessing the efficiency and effectiveness of its activities in achieving these results.
To fully understand this assessment dynamic, one must engage in a definitional breakdown of the whole of government performance into the individual parts that comprise it.
Firstly, efficiency, being at the core of performance analysis, is understood, simply, as the level of output per unit of input. Effectiveness, though often used interchangeably with the concept of efficiency, is, more specifically, a function of efficiency for it refers to the outcomes that result from the quantity and quality of outputs produced. Lastly, performance, in its entirety, envelops both efficiency and effectiveness so as to provide an indication of how well government is applying its vision and fulfilling its overall mission.
Assessing the goodness (or lack thereof) in government is, therefore, a difficult and sometimes esoteric thing, grounded but not limited to that which is measurable and observable.
If measuring good governance were limited to appraising the observable and quantifiable alone, then such an important enterprise would be reduced to a mere ex-post exercise. A well-rounded analysis of the effectiveness of public sector affairs is both positive and normative as it takes into central account the intangible political and institutional underpinnings of government, and how these work for or against the best interest of the people.
The checks and balances system serves as the official institutional framework for good governance to take place in liberal democracies. Separation of powers calls for political actors to use the competencies of their office with great prudence and measure.
With limited amounts of political capital available to travel through a meandering network of bureaucratic checkpoints, elected and appointed officials operate in an environment rife with constraints and expectations to perform in strict compliance with the highest standards of ethical and professional behavior.
Constantly holding politicians and civilians to account at the level of these standards are the three branches of government: the executive, the legislature, and the courts.
The accountability power of the courts emanates from the rule of law as jurists look after the faithful application of the body of established rules and regulations that constitute the legal framework of a country.
Exercising accountability at many levels, the legislature is the branch of government that enjoys, perhaps not the deepest, but definitely the widest range of powers in holding both politicians and civilians accountable for their actions. From confirming political appointments to calling appointees and elected officials to give evidence before a committee of legislators; to passing, amending and/or ratifying laws, the legislative system is a powerful scrutinizing instrument of the state vested with the authority to regulate, discipline and shape behavioral dynamics in government and society at-large.
Finally, the executive branch is more on the receiving end of accountability, but it has the wherewithal, through principal-agent management logistics, to effectively hold to account those within the executive administration.
Having been able to eyewitness the workings of British parliament, the author of these lines cannot imagine a system of stricter political scrutiny than dozens of cameras broadcasting live to the world every word that is uttered in a chamber comprised of dissenting parties. Adding to this is the fact-checking that follows every statement, claim and/or verbal exchange that takes place in such heated interactions.
Periodically, in liberal democracies, the citizenry is given the opportunity to exercise direct accountability through the electoral process. Albeit a keystone in liberal democratic systems, elections set countries up for democratic deficits.
The periodic nature of electoral contests allows governments to function without being directly accountable to the people throughout a significant portion of the interval of time in between elections during which elected officials can defect on campaign promises without facing immediate repercussions.
With governments being democratically elected, a democratic deficit emerging as a result seems unreasonable from the outset. However, after weighing and carefully considering the concept of democracy as the “rule of the people” and the mechanism of accountability as the means whereby rulers are liable unto the people, it is fair-minded to equate a lack of accountability with a lack of democratic competencies at the very heart of democracy itself.
Democratic elections seem, from this perspective, as a virtual contradiction. On the one hand elections are the vehicles through which people not only express, but also bring to bear their will on the political scene. On the other hand, in the aftermath of elections, the electorate becomes, in a sense, institutionally disenfranchised until the celebration of the next electoral contest.
Whereas civil society can scrutinize government activities during the period of time in between elections, so doing is not equivalent to holding officials to account per se. Civilians have the right to monitor government activities and openly voice criticism concerning the public sector, but they themselves cannot exercise full accountability because they do not have the constitutional powers to do so.
Through popular protests and outcries they can only pressure institutions to use their official powers to demand answers and, if need be, sanction officials on the count of wrongful deeds and/or maladministration.
Media networks, ombudsmen, popular protests, public hearings, and non-governmental watchdogs shed light and analyze public affairs, but none of them – excepting, to an extent, the ombudsman - has the explicit institutional power to call to account and sanction a given public servant for poor performance or wrongdoing. The absence of such wherewithal undermines the ability of civil society to shape governance by means of scrutiny itself.
Notwithstanding the non-institutional nature of the aforementioned scrutinizing forces in civil society, established democracies around the world have a record of being significantly responsive to their demands.
The media, for instance, has unofficially been regarded as the fourth branch of government in many countries. With a global network of text, sound and image at the average citizen’s disposal, media has, unarguably, become a powerful scrutinizing tool capable of taking the form of a sort of institution itself.
If anything were to resemble Jeremy Bentham’s panoptical design in today’s world it would be, as a matter of fact, the seemingly omnipresent media networks. Nothing seems to escape the arresting, quasi-panoptical gaze of investigative journalists and reporters empowered by political, corporate, business and popular forces in global civil society upon the platform of cutting-edge technology.
In an effort to bridge the accountability gap between political rulers and the electorate, these forces have built a network that reaches even unto the innermost parts of government. With penetrating journalistic and reporting capacities, the media has been a lamp unto the feet of public servants whether they walk on the path that leads to better and more effective governance or stray in the ways of incompetence and public malfeasance.
Watergate is the classic example of the influence media can have on government. A newspaper report about the wrongdoings of a political campaign forced the resignation of a United States president. That took place in the time before Internet, smartphones, facebook and twitter were part of everyday life.
Although many other scandals have surfaced since, none other has led to such a monumental outcome in American presidential politics. This case, arguably, helped in setting the media up as one of the greatest deterrents of bad behavior in western society.
Working on a twenty-first century platform, the media can conduct Watergate-type investigations with much more expediency and detail. Interacting inside and out state borders through a complex web of non-governmental watchdogs and civilian monitors, the media is a central player in what John Keane refers to as monitory democracy.
This dimension of democracy, according to Keane, runs parallel to traditional institutions. But not only does it run parallel to the established means of accountability it is, in actual fact, multimodally linked to it.
Monitory democratic bodies transform institutional data into information that is fed into the public domain and packaged in the form of political issues that eventually summon parties concerned to resolution-oriented dialogues and debates.
In uniting the different forces of society through the powerful ties of credence-worthy supervisory units, monitory democracy is to be regarded as the great societal equalizer.
In his book “The Death of Democracy”, following a kind of fairness and political inclusion doctrine, Keane ventures into a theoretical field of plain topography where the ability to gather, share and process information is capable of obliterating power-wielding protuberances that emerge in the horizon.
These protuberances, so to speak, seek to transform the perfect plains of transparency (free flow of information) into a dystopian mountain range of power brokers and special interest groups.
Glancing over reality, however, the democratic playing field is, to begin with, fairly unleveled most of the time. As one takes a step back for a better panoramic view, it becomes evident that the field is actually a stadium with a multitude of stands surrounding the area where the information players play for different teams that are in a state of fierce competition to score and win the game.
Some teams are better trained, more experienced and numerous than others. Others are militia-type coalitions that haphazardly recruit members of the audience with no formal training, but with a knack for the trade and passion for the cause.
The referees, though impartial, are not alien to pressure groups that try to buy their way into the referee’s statutory impartiality and bend the rules according to what is in their best interest.
All the while, members of the audience want to be entertained as well as respected. In the age of information they see every move; they know the players and the inner-workings of the game. If they are fanatical about player performance is because their life, in a sense, depends on it. If a player shirks or subverts he is in great risk of being voted out and replaced.
Compared to Bentham’s panoptical structure, the relationship between the observer and the observed is not necessarily tilted in favor of the former. In the case of government, media and civilian relations, all actors play the role of watchman and beheld.
The degree to which this duality of roles influences behavior depends on the actors’ ability to attach meaning to their seeing capabilities by way of rewarding what is pleasing unto their eyes while sanctioning that which displeases them. As aforementioned, such ability is inextricably bound to the fortitude of the institutional and non-institutional bodies that frame the relational dynamics between and amongst actors.
Insofar as governance is concerned, the impossibility of strictly watching every aspect of it remains true despite all the surveillance mechanisms available in today’s world. Increased surveillance, nevertheless, is conducive unto good governance under two conditions. First, increased surveillance must be accompanied with the means to discard, replace or ameliorate the beheld according to performance standards and expectations. Second, in its mission of encouraging good behavior, increased surveillance should also encourage, not deter, innovation. This, in turn, will enable the optimization of public resources so as to prevent capacity underutilization.
Lastly, given the intrinsic limitations in the surveillance capacity of institutions and civil society, the best formula (if there is one at all) for good behavior is, arguably, a capacity for introspection coupled with an inner core of moral and professional ethics. For, as has been said, “unless the heart guards the mind; and the mind the heart, the watchman watcheth but in vain.”
The author is a Dominican scholar, political analyst, speaker and entrepreneur.