I want to highlight what appear to be advantages and disadvantages a civil society association has over more central actors (political parties, government officials, or legislators), more importantly, the advantages and disadvantages that the ensemble of all the civil society associations have over them, and the sort of pathologies that might result.
1. Knowledge of affected groups: NGO’s, neighborhood associations, women’s movements, human rights groups or professional or commercial associations claim, with considerable justice, to know the conditions of their clienteles or constituencies better than government officials and local politicians. If politicians and officials have been dealing with a problem affecting a groups for a long time, they may have more or better information, and given their broader responsibilities, better suited to work into legislation or policy. But in the complexity of social life, there are almost certainly clusters of people, e.g., women in the workplace, or residents along a waterway that crosses state boundaries, or indigenous communities across a country, who have not and may never play the kind of role in electoral politics or administrative activities which would have made them subject of study by politicians or government officials. Such groups do, however, become the object of legislation or policy.
Not certainly, but with some relatively high probability, civil society associations which have been formed to deal specifically with that set of people will be able to provide the necessary information about the attitudes, physical conditions, and likely reactions of that set. Not only may they have worked with such groups and acquired such information, but they may also be less inclined to distort the information in the interest of some broader political agenda, or skew it to fit some official government version.
But the issue is clearer if we look at it from the point of view of the political system as a whole, and not just the relative merits of one politician, official or NGO. Given the complexity and rapid change in policy problems, a rich and complex array of civil society associations will be able to generate better information than politicians or officials about groups that are constantly being defined and redefines in legislation – such as teen mothers or those affected by environmental regulations on land use in watersheds. Existing specialized groups may be relevant, or groups or coalitions may form specifically for a policy debate. Sometimes, it is true, the general view of the official or politicians will be crucial, but often it will need to be matched with the precise information of suitably organized groups.
This is not simply an argument for building affected people into the decision making process. Democratic norms concerning deliberative democracy often put emphasis on building in the those being affected into the process of legislation. This is desirable for many reasons, in part because some things about their own situation can only be really known by the people themselves. But it is not always completely true that the command all the information about ‘their’ own experience. It is not always certain that a representative of the group, by themselves knows the situation of the group best. If the group is dispersed, (such as indigenous populations), or if it is newly identified (such as those affected by pollution from a production process), or those affected by a ‘hidden’ social process (such as the members of one or another underground economy), the ‘experts’ will often be as important as the participants in identifying the factors which impinge on that population, and which are crucial for policy. Both expert and participant information is needed to ground policies. It is plausible that the need for that combination, and the increasing availability of the experts, is one of the structural reasons for the emergence of the NGO sector.
Saying that they may have such information does not, of course argue that all civil society associations do in fact have good information, or that they supply it effectively. They may get it wrong, or deliver it in such a way that it inhibits the decision making process or warps it away from democratic norms.
A particular NGO may be comprised of professionals dropping in from outside (even abroad) who may claim to know a some important things about a group, but lack the depth of knowledge about local customs and conditions to effectively understand what attitudes mean and what unexpected consequences would flow from the adoption of a policy. Alternatively, they may be so tied to their own political agendas, driven by donors or ideologically-inspired parent organizations that the information is faulty.
Looking at the problem from the system as a whole, the range of NGOs, think tanks, professional associations may, for all its plurality not ‘cover’ that group, or more to the point, since the hallmarks of civil society associations are their adaptability, they may, for some reason, not be able to generate the appropriate focus. It might take a long time for civil society to generate the combination of expertise and participants to provide information about the full range of people affected by new policies regarding medical treatments determined to be harmful, for example. Sensationalist media may make it more likely that extremist opinions are actually heard on an issue, than what may be more accurate representation of the total impact.
It seems plausible to expect that such local knowledge can often be better provided by a rich arrays of civil society associations than by relying only on government or politicians, but a desirable outcome is not certain and we will return to ask about some of the arrangements which might make it more likely.
2. Best Practices: The second example of a type of information whose generation and deployment may involve civil society associations is that of ‘best practices’, that is the knowledge of the experiences in other places of the use of policy instruments beings considered, and of the rates and circumstances of their success and failure. Examples of such knowledge might be such things as the techniques that have been used to abate river pollution, or knowledge of how communities have been successfully organized to monitor such pollution. This would include a knowledge of the currently fashionable strategies – at various times, for example, micro finance schemes, building ‘social capital’, police training schemes or (going back) land reform. But knowledge of best practices, if it were to be ideal, would go beyond the fashion to a detailed knowledge of experience in different parts of the country, or the world.
Discovering the relevant, potentially world-wide experience in dealing with a particular problem is a complex challenge. On almost any policy topic, the range of relevant experiences is very large, so the question here is not about perfect knowledge, but about relative degrees of understanding. It needs to be combined with the ‘local knowledge’ mentioned above to assess what would need to be altered in the policy to make it locally effective. Further such knowledge of best practices is not knowledge of a fixed set of ‘facts’ but rather being ‘up to date’, and having such knowledge means having a way of conducting on-going monitoring of experiments and their results. And finally, the judgment of what practice is considered ‘best’ will depend on the perspectives and interests of the person doing the judging. Thus, the effectiveness of knowledge of best practices includes an understanding of the points of view of others, and the possibilities for satisfying the demands of a larger group than any one particular target group.
Acquiring knowledge of, and monitoring best practices goes on in government agencies, in political party organizations (in some countries), and in particular by the professionals in the policy making and legislative offices in government. Individually, NGOs, policy think tanks, internationally organized social movements and other civil society associations do not have the resources to know practices on many issues in many locations that government officials are likely to have have. That generalized knowledge, however, unless the issue is an old one of high priority, is likely to be overshadowed in particular cases by the specialized knowledge of some groups, and in its generality by the manifold practices understood by the ensemble of civil society associations. Although it may be easy to exaggerate, it is worth noting, too, that NGOs may also have the advantage of reaching out to off-the-beaten track experiences, to provide a needed element of innovation.
The relation between governments and civil society organizations is complex, but it is worth noting that in most modern legislatures, a kind of competitive-cooperative arrangement between the ‘special interest group’ and the legislative staff develops, turning in part around the question of information. Exactly what makes this sometimes contentious, sometimes perhaps too cozy relationship work is again a matter of the informal practices that evolve to regulate them.
Once again, all is not positive. This is not a functionalist argument that because such information is provided, that it must be positively related to outcomes. Much of the knowledge of practice provided by NGOs, think tanks, international social movements and other civil society associations may well be flawed. Knowledge of experiences in other places may be wrong, or insufficiently understood to be adapted to new situations. Connections to sources of information about experiences may be heavily colored by wishful thinking or political ideologies. The understanding of the policies being proposed may be imperfect, and thus the relevance of however perfectly understood experiences may be minimal. These same ‘mistakes’ may characterize the work of government agencies and legislative staffs, of course. But they might be more severe in civil society, since civil society associations are not confronted daily with the task of integrating policy proposals into broad government programs. Again, what makes the difference will be the practices with which the information is ‘filtered’ as it enters the political process, and how well the civil society organizations themselves police themselves to maintain integrity.
3. Understanding fundamentals: A third example of the kind of knowledge civil society associations may generate and supply concerns the basic factors at work in the society. For example, environmental policy at some level must come to grips with the physical dynamics of global warming. Agricultural policy is based, consciously or unconsciously on and understanding of the biological characteristics of the products being promoted. Welfare reform aimed at promoting family ties assume certain psychological and material processes when women are put on or taken off welfare. The social dynamics involved when indigenous communities are forced to change the meaning of ritual practices needs to figure into policies about community autonomy.
For short hand, I will refer to this kind of knowledge as theory. While theory may play an hidden role in policy making (see Keynes’ famous quote about the influence of dead scribblers) the process of policy making can, and, impressionistically, increasingly does, involve a conscious confrontation of policy programs and proposals with what theoretical knowledge there is. Theories are often competing and lacking certainty, but when choices are made, “theory” is a way of describing our best efforts at being rational. Whether they are considered as heuristics, or as simply piecemeal efforts to understand the dynamics of a process which requires attention, introducing theories in an ongoing and timely way, is a piece of cognitive politics.
Research organizations, universities and think tanks are the kinds of civil society associations which generate theory in this sense. Some government agencies may well have the research capacity, the time and the autonomy to reach for such insights, but the common complaint of many bureaucrats is that such time and resources are precisely what they do not have. Civil society associations range from those completely preoccupied with practical implementation of their programs, to those whose business it is to reflect on the underlying dynamics. It is the diversity of the research and theory oriented entities in civil society which are usually thought of as the best guarantee that a continuous process of reflection will make possible the best possible adaptation of policy to new situations. And, in the ideal case, theory generated from a wide range of sources will promote the democratic ideal of taking into account the widest range of citizens.
On the negative side, first of all there is an ‘ivory tower’ effect in which the theory being developed in research centers is either not relevant to policy, or is not communicated effectively. This is the sort of problem faced constantly by universities, and I will not elaborate, except to note that building meaningful bridges is a challenge. More dangerous, presumably is misleading or destructive theory. This, also, is a large topic, involving a question of the role of ideology in guiding policy, for example, or theories infected by one or another sort of fundamentalism. Some form of linkage between civil society organizations and politics allowing meaningful reflection on the applicability of theory and which promotes meaningful competition between different perspectives is clearly a desideratum, although not easy to achieve.
4. Evaluating claims
In the course of political debate, politicians and government officials use rhetorical devices to further their goals. In a world awash in advertising where half truths and manipulated information are taken for granted as legitimate means of marketing, political campaigns rapidly acquire, perhaps always have had a heavy dose of the same. One of the self proclaimed tasks of the media – itself a part of civil society, to be sure – is to expose the deliberate falsehoods and exaggerations of public figures. There are two difficulties with this scenario, however. To begin with the media are obviously under their own compulsions to shape the world of information. But rather than going into this, it is the second problem which is more relevant here. Very few newspapers, television networks or news magazines can support the kind of exhaustive examination of claims about states of fact or allegations about causal relations, e.g., what relevance does a tax plan have for correcting a downturn in economic activity, or what would be the consequences of a plan to situate a major industry next to a certain river. What the networks and reporters do, of course, when confronted with government of party claims, is to consult the experts, who are often parts of civil society.
The point is that one piece of a serious deliberation involves evaluating the validity of assertions of fact and causal connections being made by the parties in a political struggle or debate. Much argument in favor of policies relies on assertions that certain actions will have, or have had specified results. As part of significant deliberation, there must be processes in place for such assertions to be challenged. Examples of one kind would be the assertions of politicians about the likelihood of, say, a party’s platform proposal to increase policing to promote public security, or to increase prosperity by reducing tariffs. Both of these might hide considerable uncertainties and contrary evidence. Another type would be the allegation of politicians that a certain public works project or privatization scheme would improve society, while hiding the great personal profit that such a scheme would net for the politician himself.
One condition of a serious democratic debate is that the actors take each other’s positions seriously, but we know that taking someone seriously includes not automatically assuming the validity of their factual arguments, however much we might be constrained to grant them their right to their own moral positions. With regard to factual and causal assertions, respect demands assessment to show if and how they are wrong and how to make progress in getting closer to a commonly agreed upon position, if possible. Symbolically and psychologically, it may be difficult for politicians to grant the correctness of factual criticism, but that, surely is part of what effective deliberation would require.
Civil society associations are in a good position to play this whistle-blowing, watchdog role, although the advantages are relative. It is not so much the relative independence of NGOs and autonomous think tanks that would guarantee the kind of purposive objectivity. After all, even if the commitment of an NGO is ‘only’ to a foreign donor, or to a particular ethnic group, or to a privileged community, those are commitments which makes it at least as likely that their vision of the relevant facts and theories will be as skewed towards these interests. Rather, it is a combination of first, having groups with competing perspectives and interests who will have the incentive to challenge claims, and, even more, the fact that civil society is diverse, multiple and constantly changing which presents the possibility of serious evaluation of claims. A challenge to a politicians promoting a policy he says will serve the poor will be more effective if there are others who are able to either validate or modify that challenge.
The onslaught of critical evaluations from civil society may be destructive as well. One of the hallmarks of contemporary political action is a widespread cynicism about government. Collectively the media and civil society organizations may be swept along in a wave of such cynicism, promoting the very problems often, that the critics are criticizing. Civil society may be so divided – as in the case of an ethnically divided society which has moved toward conflict, that the drum beat of hostile civil society demands may accentuate an already difficult situation.
I am now in territory where I would require a much more rigorous definition of what one might call the ‘ideal political debate situation’ to determine when the actions of civil society in holding politicians and officials to account for the factual accuracy and theoretical adequacy of their statements promote or inhibit good government and democracy. I think I can assume for the present, however, that the impact of civil society’s critical evaluation can both be crucial for an open society in which political half truths are exposed, and on the other hand may be severely problematic. As with the other ways in which civil society associations become involved in politics, the variation requires a look at the institutions and regulations, formal and informal, which control their impact.
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