Re-valuing The Public

Teresa L. Córdova

When we are on the ground getting the policies implemented, or perhaps even making the policies, we focus on doing what we can get done. One of our first questions is, “what are the constraints, the limits of what is possible (or probable), given current fiscal conditions, regulatory structures, or political dynamics.” In focusing on getting done what is more likely in our power to influence, we might also make the decision to leave the more difficult – or nearly unattainable – goals behind. Working under conditions of limited government resources, our focus might be to accept the constraints of the “changing times” and focus our efforts on budgets, minimizing as much as we can, cuts to vital services. We might implement strategies for “efficiency,” introduce new technologies, or shift organizational structures. We work with what we got; we adapt; we innovate. As politician, as manager, as innovator, as activist, we act with the best of intentions. It makes sense; it is a way for good-minded people to be engaged, to contribute.

Does it also make sense to evaluate our choices to engage in these ways? Does it make sense to ask about the implications of given actions as to whether they contribute to solutions or unintentionally exacerbate the problems? How might our choices with respect to local governance, for example, strengthen or weaken our mechanisms to govern ourselves in ways that promote the collective good? Because if we look closer, we can make the connection between the conditions that exist at the level of local governance (i.e. insufficient revenue and decreasing ability to deliver) as part and parcel of the same set of dynamics that are creating disparities that threaten the foundational fabric of our communities.

Though we may be at the ground level attempting to sustain both the public sector and its value to local governance, we might remember that the cuts to public sector budgets didn’t just happen. There are economic interests that with their power have directed wealth to themselves through tax and regulatory policies – thus depleting the revenue base of the public while adding to its costs. The concentrated wealth does not however, make its way to job creation and shared benefits. Instead, anti-government rhetoric makes government itself the scapegoat and further erodes the public’s belief that government should be valued. All of this makes way, for the further privatization of government functions and policies that serve, not the public interest necessarily, but the drive for generating profit through the administration of those functions, e.g. prison industrial complex in the U.S.

Under conditions of our stewardship with its limited power, how might we sharpen our abilities to get at the root cause for the conditions we face, perhaps change, but at least not make worse? We might ask, does our approach to democracy and local governance strengthen the collective good or take us to the door of furthering the demise of the public sector, or more to the point – the public’s commitment to itself. Hopefully, the desire to salvage from what is possible does not deliver us deeper into the entrenched logic of furthering the concentration and centralization of power, decision-making and wealth. The choices that we make in how to address conditions of reduced revenue streams, new technology and pressures for privatization will either reinforce the very forces that create those conditions – or challenge them. We need to pay attention to our policy choices, their logical extension and their implications. Articulating values of the collective good, making way for multiple stakeholders, working in coalitions and partnering with citizen organizations are among the strategies that we can employ to re-create – and strengthen the public, for the public.



Teresa L. Córdova, Ph.D. is Professor in Urban Planning and Director of The Great Cities Institute, representing UIC’s Great Cities Initiative and commitment to its Urban Mission.  Professor Córdova is an applied theorist and political economist whose focus is community development and Latino Studies.  She approaches her work as a scholarship of engagement in which her research, pedagogy and service are integrated.  She studies the impacts of globalization on Latino communities with particular interest in global/local dynamics.  Throughout the span of her academic career, Professor Córdova has engaged with communities outside the university and is an expert in community/university partnerships.

Democracy in The Circle: a route to reconnection and engagement?

Frank Hendriks

One of the theme’s at INLOGOV’s 2014 summer symposium is “Strengthening democracy and participation: routes to re-connection and engagement.” One of the possible routes is tellingly sketched in Dave Eggers’s recent novel The Circle (2013).

I will not try to summarize this rich, dystopian novel which is in the tradition of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, brimming with ideas as well as fears. The vision of democracy presented in The Circle is what I focus on here. It is called ‘demoxie’, and it might be a better prediction of future democracy than many theorists would think.

In the book, demoxie is quite typically introduced as a hitherto unthought-of ‘next step’ in a development process. It starts with the idea to make everyone with a Circle account automatically a registered voter. In the brave new world of The Circle, virtually everyone has such an account, as it is the merger of all other accounts. Think of Google, Twitter, Facebook, and all that coming together in one big company, with a monopoly on the internet and all connected data. One of the company founders, Bailey, first sees this as an opportunity to perfect electoral democracy, to close ‘the circle’ between electors and elected so to speak. “Now think,” he says at a company meeting, “if we can get closer to full participation in all elections (…) As we know here at the Circle, with full participation comes full knowledge. We know what Circlers want because we ask (…) if we observe the same model nationally, electorally, then we can get very close, I think, to 100 percent participation. One hundred percent democracy.”

There is applause, but the fatal heroine of the book, Mae Holland, has a brainwave and suggests to take the whole thing one step further. Why not oblige everyone to vote? “Everyone would agree that 100 percent participation is the ideal.” Until the requested vote has been cast, a circle account will simply be blocked. “And then we can take the temperature of everyone at any time.” The developers at the firm are so excited that within a week they have a beta version of what now is called ‘demoxie’ – “It’s democracy with your voice, and your moxie. And it’s coming soon.” The first try-out question is “Should we have more veggie options at lunch?” In no time the demoxie result appears: “75% of respondents want more veggie options. More veggie options will be provided.” The company’s founders are excited, they want more of these direct votations and promise to implement the majority ‘moxie’ within a day. Demoxie would be the best shot at ‘pure’, direct democracy the world ever had.

Is this unreal ‘science-fiction’, completely detached from our world? I don’t think so. Like everything in The Circle, demoxie is a radical extrapolation of developments already visible. It’s actually quite close to what the Five Star Movement, one of Italy’s biggest parties nowadays, envision. It’s very close to what pirate parties around the world call ‘liquid feedback’ – heeding the voice of constituencies on a permanent basis, feeding it back directly to political processes at hand. It’s an extrapolation of consumer polls, internet surveys, facebook counts, and the like, now with the promise of swift take-up, and response rates that can hardly be ignored.

I see ‘demoxie’ as a radicalized version of what I call, less poetically, ‘voter democracy’. I tried to give it due attention in my book ‘Vital Democracy’, but quite honestly it needs much more. Democratic theory is traditionally focused on the distinction between Westminster (indirectly-aggregative) and consensus (indirectly-integrative) democracy. More recently the attention has been extended to communicative and deliberative democracy of the directly-integrative type. Surely, these are routes to re-connection and engagement, and we should continue to study them. However, we should also realize that these routes are followed more often in theory than in practice. Democratic theorists are intrigued by experiments with mini-publics, deliberation days, and the like, but the wider public quite often just prefers to quickly vote, and see their votes aggregated directly and efficiently.

There is not only a popular pull in this direction, but also a strong technological push, which are two reasons to take this other, directly-aggregative, route to re-connection and engagement more seriously than we do. Because whether we like it or not as democratic theorists, it is here to stay and it is bound to grow.


Frank Hendriks is full professor and research director at the Tilburg School of Politics and Public Administration, and co-director of the Demos-Center for Better Governance and Citizenship at Tilburg University. His current research is focused on the design and quality of democratic governance – on political leadership and active citizenship, on public decision-making and participation, on reform and innovation in democratic institutions – at the level of the city and the state at large. Frank is also a Fellow at the Montesquieu Institute in the Hague and Visiting Fellow at St Edmunds College, Cambridge University.

The Coalition’s mishandling of recall: worse than Baldrick’s war poem

Chris Game

Seeking an arresting phrase to convey the protracted abjectness of the events described in this blog, my first thought was Education Secretary Michael Gove’s  ‘misbegotten shambles’ – his accusatory summary of how certain historians and popular TV programmes like Blackadder have depicted the First World War.

Then I realised Captain Blackadder himself does the job even better in the final ‘Goodbyeee’ episode that probably riles Gove most. Appraising Private Baldrick’s second most famous war poem – not ‘Boom, boom’, but ‘Hear the words I sing, war’s a horrid thing’ – the Captain opines: “Well, it started badly, tailed off a little in the middle, and the less said about the end, the better. But, apart from that, excellent.”  A neat encapsulation, I’d suggest, of the sad story of the Coalition Government’s pledge to give electors the power through petition and election to recall/remove MPs and other public officials before the end of their term of office.

The less said about the pathetic end probably is for the better, but there has to be something. It looked to have arrived when it was widely reported last month that David Cameron and presumably his elections adviser, Lynton Crosbie, had decided that – with two incumbent Tory MPs already deselected and Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, apparently about to escape any significant punishment for claiming over £90,000 in allowances for a second home for her parents – it was time to kill the whole expenses-prompted recall issue by dropping the anyway ineffectual Bill from May’s Queen’s Speech.

This week the PM appeared to have completed a double U-turn, with the announcement that the recall Bill had not been recalled – well, not permanently anyway – and that it may well, or perhaps not, feature in the Queen’s Speech; but, either way, it owed nothing whatever to the Lib Dems.

It’s one more of the Coalition’s lengthening list of political reforms – an elected House of Lords, a smaller House of Commons and reformed electoral system, a House Business Committee, even the promised funding of 200 all-postal open primaries that I blogged about recently – whose actual or seriously contemplated abandonment must, if it were possible, have increased still further public cynicism towards the whole parliamentary system.

Whatever its immediate future, though, MPs’ recall is really only the secondary concern of this blog. My main moan here is the Coalition’s total neglect of the ‘other public officials’ strand – that should by now be in place and applying to at least directly elected mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners, both of which offices would, in my view, have proved more attractive to a suspicious electorate, had a recall provision been part of the package.

Recall, like referendums, citizens’ initiatives and petitions, is an instrument of direct democracy for holding directly elected politicians to account. Put simply, ‘fully participatory recall’ means that the voters who elect someone to public office have the right, between scheduled elections and for any reason, to initiate and vote for their removal. It sounds a laudable principle – possibly even meriting a Blackadder ‘excellent’ – but not just a principle, for that’s essentially how it operates in, for example, around 30 American states, some German Länder, Japan, Switzerland, and British Columbia.

Necessarily, it generates public interest. Take last November’s recall of Mayor Deedy Slaughter (female, if you were wondering) by voters in the smallish Louisiana town of Port Allen. The Mayor had upset residents by, among other allegations, hiring her brother-in-law as chief-of-staff and de facto policy boss, attempting to fire the Chief Finance Officer without City Council approval, and charging to taxpayers her Washington trip for President Obama’s Inauguration. A recall petition was launched, and signed by well over the required one-third of registered voters; 57% of the 63% turnout in the ensuing election voted for recall, and the Mayor was ousted from office by the same people who had voted her in.

It’s undeniably democracy, but clearly the very idea scares the pants off many of our MPs, who, even in the wreckage of their collective expenses scandal, were never going to vote for that much of it. Nor, more seriously, despite what some idealistic reformers imagined, was there ever any real chance of their being asked to. For, like Baldrick’s poem, our very approach to recall started badly, in two distinct ways: one unfortunate but understandable, the other just depressing.

The unfortunate one, assuming at least some of those involved wanted the thing to work, was not taking advantage of the fact that the politicians whose accountability the recall procedure is best suited to secure are those exercising personal executive powers – like the elected mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) being promoted in other sections of the Coalition Agreement, both, as it happens, also the subject of recent INLOGOV blogs.

Both these imported posts would always have been hard to sell to a disengaged and disenchanted electorate – even supposing the Government had bothered to mount serious information campaigns. But, judging from my own limited involvement with both issues, I feel some of people’s genuine worries about the accountability and removability of these new powerful office holders could have been mollified by the existence of credible and participatory recall mechanisms.

Given how the whole concern with recall had arisen out of the 2009 parliamentary expenses scandal, it was inevitable that recall of MPs would get legislative priority. But it would not have been difficult to publicise the Government’s intention that elected mayors and PCCs would be subject to similar recall accountability – as opposed to tucking it away on page 9 of a Localism Bill impact assessment.

Certainly it would not have been difficult, having opted to legislate for MPs’ recall first, to make a better fist of it. Indeed, as we’ll see below, the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s view was that it would have been preferable to have produced nothing at all. That’s how depressing it was.

Much was made at the time of all three main parties’ 2010 manifestos supporting a right of recall; much less of the accompanying qualifications. For Labour it would apply only to MPs found responsible for financial misconduct (undefined); for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, it would be for proven “serious wrongdoing” (undefined).

From the outset, therefore, it was clear it would offer at most ‘mixed recall’, with voters’ involvement having to be triggered by someone else defining and proving the misconduct, wrongdoing, or whatever. And the ‘someone elses’, of course, would be the accused’s fellow MPs. The intended purpose of recall – empowering voters to hold MPs to account – would be turned virtually upside down. Yes, recall is a serious business and there should be safeguards, but not a parliamentary filter.

Apart from promising “early legislation”, the Coalition Agreement simply tidied up the manifesto pledges. Public confidence in our shamed parliamentarians was to be restored through what might be termed ‘late-in-the-day participatory recall’, “allowing voters to force a by-election where an MP is found to have engaged in serious wrongdoing and having had a petition calling for a by-election signed by 10% of his or her constituents.” (p.27).

The bad start was followed by the ‘tailing off a little in the middle’, or the draft Bill. Its many deficiencies included seeing recall as an instrument of discipline rather than democracy, and ‘serious wrongdoing’, without ever attempting to define it, as more concerned with prison sentences than abuse of position, breach of parliamentary privilege, nepotism, racism, cheating, lying and indolence. Its chief virtue was to offer a target for pre-legislative scrutiny, some of which was pleasingly robust, like that of the Commons P&CR Committee (p.3).

“Under the Government’s proposals, constituents themselves would not be able to initiate a recall petition. The circumstances that would trigger a petition – if an MP received a custodial sentence of 12 months or less, or if the Commons resolved that there [had been] ‘serious wrongdoing’ – are so narrow that petitions would seldom, if ever, take place.

“We are not convinced these proposals will increase public confidence in politics. Indeed, we fear that the restricted form of recall proposed could even reduce confidence by creating expectations that are not fulfilled.”

So misconceived and irredeemable was the Bill considered by some genuine reformers, like the Commons Committee, that they almost welcomed last month’s anticipated demise. As would I, were it not for my concern that any prospects of proper participatory recall for elected mayors, councillors, and Police and Crime Commissioners would have been even further postponed too.


Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

How Mayoral Recall Could, and Wouldn’t, Have Worked

Chris Game

We’ll never know, of course, whether a well publicised mayoral recall provision could have swung some of those lost referendums. My own view is that, with a half-decently organised Government-led Yes campaign – detailing the ‘city deals’ that mayoral cities could expect, and confirming that mayors elected by voters would be recallable by voters – several additional referendums, including Birmingham’s, were comfortably winnable. 

What is surely undeniable is that Ministers’ refusal even to address the issue of recall – to which the Government had been publicly, if reticently, committed since its January 2011 mayoral impact assessment – understandably increased people’s doubts about elected mayors and ultimately cost votes.

I’ve been wondering this past week – over the final stages of arguably the second most important US election this year – whether, if those mayoral referendums had been held just a month later, the topic might have forced itself on to our electoral agenda, and, if so, with what effect?

The election in question was only the third time in US history that a state Governor faced the prospect of being voted out of office in a recall election – and the first time ever that the defending Governor had won. That’s the statistical measure of what happened on Tuesday in the state of Wisconsin; its historical importance will be seen between now and the Presidential election on November 6th.

Scott Walker – the conservative Republican politician, not the “Make It Easy on Yourself” one – was elected Governor of Wisconsin in November 2010 on a platform of tax cuts for businesses and the well-off and wage cuts for public employees.  Inheriting a projected $3.6 billion budget deficit, he almost immediately unleashed the most politically inflammatory Budget Repair Bill imaginable.

Public employees’ wage increases were capped at the rate of inflation, their pension and health insurance contributions increased and the programmes cut. Above all, though, this was an attack on the Democratic Party through the public sector unions, who saw their incomes slashed and – going beyond any campaign pledges – their collective bargaining rights virtually abolished.

There were furious protests and demonstrations, occupations and sit-ins, negotiations and some amendments, major procedural delay, judicial review, and finally reference to the state Supreme Court. Eventually, however, the Bill was passed, and opponents turned their attentions to recall. 

Recall – enabling a citizens’ vote to remove and replace a public official before the end of their term of office – is almost as long established in the US as the other way of getting rid of them, through the more judicial route of impeachment. With 150 recall elections and 75 recalls across the country in 2011 – including, incidentally, two mayors – its deployment, particularly at local level, is widespread, but it is not universal, and removal of senior state officials through recall is exceptional.

Wisconsin is one of 19 states to permit recall elections for governors and other state officials, but in the hundred years pre-Walker the impact had been limited to a couple of state senators being recalled and a couple surviving recall elections. As for state governors, there had been just two gubernatorial recall elections in all US history – both lost by the incumbent, but neither, contrary to what might be imagined, having anything to do with corruption or personal misconduct.

North Dakota’s Governor Lynn Davis was held personally responsible for the savage agricultural depression of the early 1920s. More famously and somewhat similarly, Gray Davis in 2003 was blamed for California’s electricity shortage – created partly by market manipulation by energy companies like Enron – and the budget crisis that followed the burst of the dot-com bubble, and was replaced by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

Recall procedures vary from state to state, although all involve gathering large numbers of signatures on a citizens’ petition. Wisconsin required signatures equalling 25% of the total votes cast for the office of governor at the last election – roughly 540,000 – to be collected within 60 days, which, when I first heard it, struck me as mountainous.

But what do I know? Wisconsinites, certainly when riled, and led by powerful public sector unions, can be a formidable force, and within just 30 days they were almost there, with over half a million names.  They eventually got to 900,000 – 23% of the state’s eligible voters and 46% of voters in the 2010 gubernatorial election. On the face of it, then, things looked tricky for Governor Walker – until you put the petitioners’ undoubtedly impressive organisation up against the sheer weight of the incumbent’s cash. 

Particularly since the Supreme Court’s historic ‘Citizens United’ decision in 2008, holding that the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by corporations and unions, effective controls over campaign fund-raising in non-federal elections have been almost non-existent.

The two sides in the Wisconsin recall election are estimated to have raised $63 million, with Walker outspending his Democratic opponent, Milwaukee Mayor, Tom Barrett, by 7 to 1. In these quantities, money talks loud. As election day approached, the gap between the candidates grew and the final result saw Walker create history with an increased vote share of 53% to 46%.

But, if it was unfortunate for Barrett, also the defeated candidate in 2010, it’s potentially dire for President Obama, his economic policy, and re-election prospects. The public sector unions are vital both financially and organisationally to the Democrats in general and Obama in particular. In a state that voted Democrat in the last six presidential elections, Scott Walker took the unions and their members on, scythed them down, and survived. There are 28 other Republican governors out there, many just waiting for this sign.

As for the influence, if any, these extraordinary events might have had on UK public opinion and the mayoral referendums, I really have no idea. They’d have made it harder for Ministers to maintain their almost Trappist silence on the recall issue, but at the same time would presumably have encouraged the idea that elected mayors would Americanise our politics, which is neither accurate nor, judging from this instance, an altogether edifying prospect. The one certainty is that this is definitely not the last we’ll hear on the subject. Whether in relation to MPs, mayors or police commissioners, recall ain’t going to go away.

Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political  leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.