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Think big, act small: Roberto Unger’s vision and piecemeal change

Brendan Martin, 15 November 2013

Roberto Mangabeira Unger is in London just now and this morning kicked off the Institute for Government’s series of ‘big thinkers’ seminars in a chalk-and-cheese encounter with the Economist’s Philip Coggan.

A Harvard professor and former member of the second Lula administration in his native Brazil, Unger certainly fits the ‘big thinker’ bill. Yet I came away more convinced than when I arrived that while big transformative thinking undoubtedly has its inspirational place, to realise such a vision we need to focus more on the small and routine.

The sweep of Unger’s vision of ‘empowered high energy democracy’ is certainly impressive, and his critique of the flawed democratic arrangements that prevail to one degree or another everywhere is pretty well indisputable.

To fix the flaws and to give a “structural dimension to democracy”, five interdependent sets of changes are required, he argued (according to my note):

  • democracy must be both institutionalised and mobilised, rather than one or the other;
  • the pace of politics must quicken, so that mistakes are made and corrected sooner;
  • federalism and devolution must enable local experiments in nationally scalable initiatives;
  • the state must “rescue” the excluded; and
  • representative democracy must be enhanced with more participatory and direct democracy, while protecting individual rights.

But that’s not all. The structural dimension of democratic change requires governmental support for innovation through:

  • enabling “vanguardism outside the vanguard”, to redesign rather than regulate or substitute for the market;
  • finance must be a “good servant rather than a poor master” of the economy; and
  • rather than privatisation being the only alternative to the “bureaucratised low quatiy public services” produced by “administrative Fordism”, “we need to engage civil society and not-for-profits in experimental delivery of public services”.

Discussant Coggan challenged Unger on a range of practicalities, which clustered around the implicit point that the central source of frustrated ambition for democracy is precisely the reason it is “the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”, as Winston Churchill put it: that different people have different interests and world views and want different things.

Coggan’s probing exposed a core flaw in Unger’s vision, expressed by Unger himself when he noted that “structural change takes place piecemeal, step by step, but cumulatively”.

The trouble is that piecemeal changes do not necessarily combine to produce the ideal of Unger’s imagination. Indeed, as he acknowledged, isolated from each other the reforms he advocates can have perverse unintended consequences.

The potential is illustrated by public service outsourcing. Whereas Unger’s idea of public service innovation through social enterprises is borne out by experience on a small scale, the realities of relative power relationships (often, as in Britain, combined with political intent) lead to yet more takeover by the privatisation corporates.

That is no reason to retreat -- as many on left and right do -- into the dichotomy Unger rightly rejects, in which “administrative Taylorism” is seen as the only alternative to the privatised state, and vice versa.

But it does suggest that we need to improve the benefit/risk ratio in public service and democratic reform by focusing on relationships within as well between governmental institutions and public, private and civil society organisations.

Unger’s response to my question around that point surprised me. He said that, while he agreed about the need to change relationships within public sector organisations, we don’t yet know how to combine experimentation with administrative accountability.

But is that true? If the most innovative firms have found ways to combine accountability to principals with innovation by agents, surely governmental institutions and public service providers can do the same?

Which brings me back to the small and routine. Unger’s vision is brilliant and inspiring, and he is obviously right about the need to combine top-down with bottom-up democratic change. But without as much focus on everyday relationships within institutions and organisations as between them it is hard to see how the social base to nurture and protect the kind of transformation he has in mind could be created and sustained.

  • Brendan Martin is managing director of Public World and author of "In the Public Interest? Privatisation and Public Sector Reform", Zed Books, 1994.


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