When civil society demands greater democracy, it assumes more shared prosperity will result when citizens have a real voice in public decision making. Where people are pessimistic about the value of democracy in protecting the common good, it’s typically because the political process has been captured by private interests or corporations and foreign governments who wield influence on elected representatives.
People wonder what difference voting makes when they see no difference in access to housing or the quality of public services, no matter whom they vote for. What is happening to politicians once they take their seats in parliament? What happens to politicians once they enter government. If elected representatives are not improving services or increasing equality of opportunity, we must ask: what’s stopping them, and how can we make it more likely they’ll act in the common good?
Many things get in the way making election promises reality. Most of us can be overwhelmed at the amount of work on our plate at any given time. Employees of large organisations know the challenge of navigating bureaucracy and getting everyone on board. At the city or country level, the complexity only grows. No wonder expectations are rarely met.
For those cases where bureaucracy and complexity are no excuse – lack of political will, corruption – how can we make sure democracy results in the change wee seek? How can we ensure that those we elect increase prosperity for all?
Shedding light on day-to-day government
To keep government accountable, we have freedom of information laws and enquiry mechanisms if budgets over-run or public funds are misspent. These approaches only make problems known after the fact, when journalists, campaigners, opposition politicians or authorities investigate past spending.
Real-time public spending data, published on an ongoing basis, is more likely to keeping spending in line with budgets and the common good. Data, published according to clear categories such as primary healthcare, sustainable energy incentives, and primary schooling, will give a clear understanding of where public funds are spent.
With increased transparency, civil society groups can analyze data to aid public understanding of government, increase trust in the proper use of taxes, and keep officials accountable. For data to be useful, it needs to be available in the right form – raw data rather than PDFs. It must cover all public spending and not just take the form of individual releases of data on selected government programmes.
Real-time accountability can serve citizens in countries where public services remain poor or non-existent while money is wasted in areas of little public benefit. Waste such as incentives to large corporations with little return for the public, excessive perks for public servants or security spending not focused on community security.
With ongoing, detailed insight into where government funds are spent, civil society knows whether or not public spending is directed to raising overall prosperity. Is the housing budget used to pay private landlords to house lower-income families instead of building a stock of quality public housing for the long term?
Transparency can also uncover when known available income does not appear in the total public budget. In Venezuela, for example, oil income doesn’t go into the central budget but disappears into various parts of the national oil company, PDVSA, giving opportunities for skimming and undemocratic control of public funds.
Like many countries prone to intervention from competing sections of the international community, behind Venezuela’s political headlines are ordinary people who don’t necessarily want to engage in day-to-day politics but do want leaders who will be accountable to them and who will improve their live chances. While politicians on the left and right make promises, citizens can state priorities and know what is achievable when public resources are managed transparently and data on spending is available in real time.