Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Community Cybernetics; Tools for Good Governance
The fragility of facts
Twenty-five years ago when environmental impact statements (EIS) were just becoming fashionable, much discussion revolved around technical standards and data quality. Professional engineers, planners, biologists and chemists were driven by the belief that ecological imperatives would set de facto limits on both levels of pollution and the more consumptive types of development. The trick was to establish those limits with scientific accuracy and to explain in rational terms why they were important, so that environmental laws, controls and plans could survive the political process.
Since then, in places where environmental regulations have been adopted, pollution mitigation has become a significant cost of production, both in the private and public sectors. There is, therefore, an advantage to be gained by convincing political leaders to push the costs of environmental clean-up into the public domain. Of course, there is also an advantage in convincing them to lower the standards so that costs of mitigation are reduced across the board.
The most effective technique for reducing regulatory burdens has been to argue that the community's economy will be harmed -- jobs will be lost or new industry will stay away. In the developing countries, this is a powerful argument when so much economic activity is marginal in the first place. Such political strategies can open up the hard scientific facts to negotiation and even negation, leaving reality to be defined by the most powerful interests. .
Who advocates for the commons?
Decisions to impose lower or no standards, or to force the public to absorb costs of pollution are not always the result of closed-door deals between politicians and lobbyists. Many such decisions are quite transparent, made with full disclosure of vested interests in open and rational debate. One of the major flaws in almost every political system, however, is that politicians (and their constituents) neglect their fiduciary, or trust, responsibilities. Satisfaction of present demand far outweighs the reward that comes from serving future generations because those future generations have an exceedingly feeble voice in the political process. Consequently, the commonwealth -- that which belongs to everyone -- is subject to entropy and begins to deteriorate for lack of a strong political champion.
In his book, Design With Nature,1 Ian McHarg articulated the role of the regional master plan as a technical advocate for the commons. Through a highly understandable process of geographic analysis, McHarg was able to demonstrate how some ecosystems can tolerate certain types of development and some cannot. In the early 1970's, local comprehensive planning processes began to use McHarg's techniques, combining both development and conservation objectives in the same document.
The orphaned future
However, in the 1980's, just as the master plan was becoming more effective as a conservation tool, it fell under attack from various quarters as an outmoded top-down instrument that did not reflect political and economic reality. In an economically pressurized world where more than 95 percent of all development decisions are made by members of the civil society, each acting more or less in their own self-interest, there is undoubted truth in this view. Squatters around the world make their choices outside the world of plans and regulations, as do an increasing number of small-scale entrepreneurs. In many cities, bureaucratic corruption has also eaten away at the basic standards and regulations that are intended to implement the master plan.
At the end of the 20th century, there is recognition that the master plan is by itself less and less capable of guiding development in directions that benefit the whole community, now and in the future. It has become too vulnerable to political and economic attack by all kinds of interests, none of which may see the plan as its baby. The future, in effect, has become an orphan.
To recover the future, citizen participation techniques are being employed more and more as adaptable and dynamic navigational tools to chart the course of community and city development toward clearly defined goals. Recommended in such global normative documents as Agenda 21 and the Habitat Agenda, participatory processes are being applied to all points of the decision-making cycle giving the public an increased sense of ownership in local priorities, policies, programmes and budgets. Through "visioning" exercises, local civil society can define its commitment to future generations. And, at budget time, effective engagement of community advocates can ensure that the future is considered alongside currently pressing issues. Through citizen involvement the old master plan may even be revitalized and made more responsive to collective needs without jeopardizing the balance between development and conservation.
The key to future-oriented participation is an accessible pool of knowledge and a desire to learn. The objective is to understand points of view, needs and aspirations of others as much as it is to promote self-interest. This is the only way, politically, that the interests of individuals can be blended into a collective sense of community. Only a self-aware public -- that is, a public well-informed about its constituent parts -- will recognize that the whole community may be affected by some seemingly remote investment decision, that individual actions have an impact on others and that compromising equity for efficiency may not always be desirable. Leaders in this process facilitate and synthesize, rather than take sides.
The master plan may have run out of steam because it is relatively static and unresponsive to accelerating change. In a rapidly urbanizing world, problems spring unheralded from the landscape and reach a flash point in shorter and shorter cycles. In order to meet issues with action, information on the status of the urban environment and the status of its residents' lives must be generated, digested and disseminated in equally short cycles. Most importantly, citizens must have access to this almost continuous flow of information in order to understand conditions and trends. Otherwise, "disjointed incrementalism," a term that has been applied to the ways in which political decisions are often made, will be the predominant and, in terms of future interests, inadequate mode of urban governance.
As never before, governance processes must embrace the concept of cybernetics. Coming from the Greek word for "steersman," cybernetics is the science of feedback and adjustment. Community cybernetics is monitoring and adjustment within and by communities, where many problems are first recognized and felt. Community cybernetics serves to alert the city's population to internal conditions and trends that will require collective course corrections, including modification to the system of governance, if necessary.
Thinking globally, measuring locally
For years, governments have used indicators to measure economic, environmental and social conditions and trends. Data are collected by governmental agencies, NGOs and research organizations through programmes that reflect a growing understanding of the need for information in decision making. When adopted as a community-level tool, indicators can help citizens track progress toward a shared goal and allow them participate knowledgeably in development decisions and policy debates.
The adoption of feedback and adjustment mechanisms at the community level is a key part of the enabling strategy that is embedded in the Habitat Agenda. It is also the sine qua non for "thinking globally, acting locally" that is at the root of local Agendas 21. As such, community indicators are often called sustainable community indicators and are constructed to measure local progress toward economic security, ecological integrity, social inclusion and good governance -- components of local sustainability. Indicator programmes at the urban and sub-city level are becoming popular as a way of providing a "reality check to ensure that incremental steps are moving in desired directions and to hold and be held accountable for choices that individuals and collective entities make."2
"Indicators are intended to make complex systems understandable or perceptible. An effective indicator or set of indicators helps a community determine where it is, where it is going, and how far it is from chosen goals. Indicators of sustainability examine a community's long-term viability based on the degree to which its economic, environmental, and social systems are efficient and integrated."3
Over time, many different systems of indicators have been developed in many places, usually reflecting the need for specific political or management information. No one system of indicators is entirely satisfactory for universal application. The Habitat Agenda provides a menu of recommendations to which communities may assign priorities depending upon their own needs. For the five-year review of progress in implementing the Habitat Agenda, UNCHS (Habitat) has developed a reporting format that covers twenty key thematic areas. A minimum data set for monitoring progress at all levels, as well as an extended list of indicators for local selection, accompanies the universal reporting format. See: http://www.istanbul5.org
Most work on community indicators is taking place in North America where experience in a number of cities has been condensed into ten lessons by Thomas Kingsley:4
21. Design an indicator system for the explicit purpose of changing things -- not just monitor trends
22. Develop a single integrated system that can support one-stop shopping
23. Develop indicators at the neighborhood level -- not just for the city as a whole
24. Build a "data warehouse" -- not just a set of files on indicators
25. Serve multiple users but emphasize using information to build capacity in poor communities
26. Democratize information -- help stakeholders use information directly themselves
27. Help stakeholders use data to tackle individual issues, but do so in a way that leads toward more comprehensive strategies
28. Use information as a bridge to promote local collaboration
29. Use available indicators but recognize their inadequacies -- particularly the lack of sufficient data on community assets
30. Assure integrity in the data and in the institution that provides them
In her widely distributed guidebook on local indicators, Maureen Hart provides another checklist for gauging whether any specific indicator is useful to sustainable community development.5 Her last question on the list asks if the indicator focuses on local sustainability at the expense of global sustainability. If so, Hart advises that the indicator should be rejected.
In all cases, development of successful community indicators should involve individuals and groups of citizens at the outset. This may be done through surveys, visioning and goals setting exercises, problem identification seminars or other techniques for civic engagement.
Quantitative indicators provide just one perspective on real world conditions and trends. It is, moreover, a perspective that may be distorted by packaging and presentation, by lack of attention to proper method, or by emphasis on specific issues and problems at the expense of others. Even without distortion, quantitative indicators may offer no insight into people's perceptions -- an important factor in political decision-making. The actual location of crime in a city can be very different from where people think it is occurring. The worst pollution exists may also occur where local citizens believe that environmental quality is not so bad. To borrow a surveying term, monitoring of the city should be done through triangulation -- the use of multiple perspectives to achieve a true picture of reality.
The city report card
A second cyber-instrument to help us see reality from the perspective of residents, as the main client group of government, is a citizen satisfaction survey, or city report card.6 The question that such a survey will address is: are citizens satisfied with the social, economic and environmental quality and with the governance of their city? Through an individual's rating of various services and conditions, the report card permits the ranking of problems in terms of overall satisfaction with both the various components of the urban milieu and the main services for which urban government or other service providers may be responsible.
The objective of a city report card is to provide a complementary insight to official statistics and indicators from a citizen's perspective. If the situation described through official data is very different from the one reported by citizens, it means that urban conditions may not be well understood by government or citizens and attempts should be made to bridge the gaps. The citizen satisfaction survey is a tool that promotes dialogue and good governance. At the local level, good governance implies that policy-makers are aware of their citizens' satisfaction in terms of those things for which government is responsible.
The report card methodology, pioneered by the Public Affairs Centre in Bangalore, India, has these additional objectives: 7
• To evolve a simple instrument to measure public service delivery in a community;
• To bring citizens together on issues of accountability, accessibility and responsiveness in public service providers;
• To provide diagnostic tools for service providers and others;
• To encourage public agencies to adopt client friendly practices and policies, performance standards and transparency in operations.
The report card method consists of: selection of households through random samples, design of questionnaires, survey of selected households, focus group discussions and mini case studies and documentation of information provided to the public by service providers.
Newspaper content analysisHelping citizens understand their own environment is one of the important roles of news media. In participatory governance, it may be said that the media have a civic responsibility to be objective and informative on local issues. Bias in the presentation of news can correlate highly to bias within civil society. The impact of such bias can be generalized in terms of misallocation of resources, injustice to individuals and groups, perpetuation of malfeasance and unwitting degradation of the commonwealth.
The continuous flow of objective news helps members of civil society understand what is going on around them and how they may be affected by external forces. Equipped with accurate and timely information, people will take a greater interest in events that may affect them personally and will participate more readily, with more knowledge, in decision-making processes.
One method for measuring whether or not civil society is being adequately informed on topics of potential concern is media content analysis.8 This method has many forms and can become complex -- evaluating symbolic meaning in news stories, for example. Perhaps the simplest form of media content analysis is the newspaper headline word/concept count. It may be assumed that most big cities have daily newspapers that circulate to a large percentage of citizens. Some cities have more than one daily newspaper. Although radio may reach more people, newspaper stories have a longer life and potentially wider distribution over time. Articles may be clipped out and duplicated for broader circulation, and they may be repeated through readings to groups of listeners, many of whom may be illiterate. Newspaper stories are also retrievable from libraries or archives called "morgues" and, now, through the Internet.
The objective of news headline analysis is to determine the comparative number of stories during one complete year of daily news that fall into each of a set of categories. Ideally categories would be the same as those selected for community indicators and/or a city report card. This will allow later comparison with the results of applying those tools.
News may contain stories about local issues, or they may be stories from other cities in the country or from cities outside the country. In any case, the subject matter will be an indicator of that which the editors consider to be of interest to their readers or of that which the editors would like readers to know about. Whether or not a newspaper is a political organ or manages its content in any way for other ends is not immediate concern in the content analysis. One purpose of the analysis is to help understand the impact of news management (e.g., maintaining gaps in certain areas of the public knowledge base) that results in less effective governance.
When compared with priority issues obtained from numerical indicator series and from satisfaction surveys, newspaper content analysis provides additional information on local knowledge of issues. It will also help to evaluate the performance of the media in reporting on real conditions and how its reporting affects perceptions of the urban environment.
The foundation for good governance is good information. Local feedback is a critical element of the enabling strategy that is now the main paradigm for good governance. In its various forms -- indicators, surveys, media analyses -- community cybernetics can provide reliable information for policy dialogue and debate. This may be information that cannot be obtained through more traditional channels or from higher levels.
The methods and concepts briefly outlined above and the sources in the footnotes are presented to readers for their further exploration. There is no single right way to carry out indicator programmes, satisfaction surveys or media analyses. It is hoped that the concept of triangulation resonates sufficiently with the need for more and different information so that various interest groups will investigate new routes to community self-discovery.
4. Ian McHarg, Design With Nature, John Wiley and Sons, 1991, 208 pp. (original 1969).
5. Center of Excellence for Sustainable Development, Measuring Progress: Success Stories, "Why Sustainable Community Indicators? People Need a Reality Check," Wingspread Journal, Volume 18, Issue 2 Spring 1996http://www.sustainable.doc.gov/articles/whysust.htm
6. Center of Excellence for Sustainable Development, Measuring Progress, "What Are Indicators?"http://www.sustainable.doc.gov/measuring/mewhat.htm
7. G. Thomas Kingsley, AICP, Neighborhood Indicators: Taking Advantage of the New Potential, American Planning Association Working Paper, October 1998
8. Maureen Hart, Guide to Sustainable Community Indicators (second edition), North Andover Massachusetts, USA: 1999. Table 3.
9. See: http://www.istanbul5.org/guidelines/ and http://www.his.com/~holycow/pac/nltr-jan.html
11. See: http://www.istanbul5.org/guidelines/