For some time now I have been designing and deploying interfaces between public authorities and citizens (in particular between authorities and creative people/creative firms). The strategy behind them all is very simple: connect people – those who work for public authorities and those who work in the creative industries – in a many-many-interaction environment with very transparent information. Web 2.0 tools and an appropriate value system – that David maintains coincide with hacker ethics – have so far brilliantly solved the filtering problem: civil servants in these networks are not clogged by people asking for favours. On the contrary, they give every sign of enjoying their proximity to citizens and what they do.
These interfaces allow a strong reduction of the distance between administrators and constituencies. The Ministry of economic development is a central authorities, but to the creatives populating Kublai it is just one click away. It is pretty obvious that Kublaians have a much, much closer relationship with it than with their local authorities, closed within their palaces (and almost always locked behind firewalls that inhibit their access to social networks).
I wonder if, in this situation, we should not rethink the subsidiarity principle. As far as I can see it says that public policy should be managed by the most local public authority which has the means to address the problem in discussion: so, in Europe, the European Union deals with global environmental planning, while urban planning in the smalltown of Pisticci is dealt with by the Pisticci municipality. This sounds simple; unfortunately, in a globalized world almost every local problem is inextricably linked to some broader context. Urban planning in metropolitan areas is a perfect example: it does not make sense to plan according to administrative borders if the economy and the society are integrated beyond it. So, it is not always easy to understand in the abstract which authority is closest to any particular problem. In practice, on the other hand, it is very simple: the closest authority is the one the least clicks away, the most accessible, the one with the best interface. For Kublai’s creatives it is a lot easier – not to mention more rewarding ad even fun – to talk to the Ministry of economic development than to their municipal governments, so they will tend to strentghen their ties with the former and ignore the latter. Old style subsidiarity is unsustainable.
It may be worth it to study the British setup (I have done it here). Policy competences are allocated not geographically, but by issues. Funding is centralized, so the central government has a lot of traction: when a strategy is adopted (like the first Blair government’s stance on the creative industries) things happen fast. But strategies are in general implemented locally, by small semipublic organizations who try out solutions competing with one another for funding from Whitehall. The system – at least for policies on creativity – works fairly well. It is no chance that the English – in a 2004 referendum – have decided that they do NOT want democratically elected regional authorities. A certain distance from the problem sometimes guarantees a broader perspective (and local politics can be toxic). All the more so since, with a little effort, central authorities can be just one click away.