Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Knowledge is power or If you believe in your projects hard enough, will you emerge victorious?

“Knowledge is power”

Once the motto of one of my old State schools, and it shows the level of schooling at that time that only recently I found it to be a tenet of that indefatigable questioner of authority, Father Francis Bacon. 

That’s not to say that my State school teachers didn’t try to instil the idea of questioning authority – it was the seventies and eighties in Tasmania, after all.  Well I remember Mr Moore coming into the Fourth Grade and waving his arms about over Lake Pedder and the seeming lack of public concern over Hydro flooding the Lake at the Town Hall meeting the night before. 

Well I also remember Mr Price reading us Animal Farm and then dropping into the conversation comments about the Spanish Civil War.  A hotbed of ALP and Socialist membership amongst the teachers in the old Rosetta Primary school, for sure. 

By the time we all got to high school, we still had some teachers who raised a little consciousness on apartheid and environmental issues in the Social Studies unit and were a little more than shocked to see me reading up on Marx and Lenin (“Know your enemy”, I told them, a child of the Cold War and refugee parent exiled by Soviet Communism.)

However the majority concentrated more on passing on the understanding that the more knowledge each of us had, the more power we would have to pass the State-set rote exams to a sufficient State points level to go to the next level of permitted questioning (Years 11 and 12). 

I’m not sure the latter was something Fra Francis would have approved of.  What he might debate with us, if he were present today, was that if you wanted to understand the current underflows in exercising authority, what is needed is a framework for rationality, power and knowledge of what is actually going on. 

And further, if knowledge is power, of how many of us elected people realise that the possession of power unavoidably spoils the free use of reason, if Kant is to be taken as salt?

And for this blog my case in point is, of course, Tasmania’s current local government reform process. 

(Come on, people, you knew I was going to start writing on about it again.  Oh settle down!  When will you realise that if we don’t get it right, it will unavoidably stuff up what we all value in Tasmania about where we live, work and play?)

Today’s local government reform considerations come courtesy of my coffee confrere, Mr Rob Crosthwaite, retired school teacher and further education devotee, who often turns up with material on rationality in decision-making I wouldn’t necessarily be looking for.

Bent Flyvberg’s book, Rationality and Power: Democracy in Practice (Chicago Press, 1998), albeit looking at the implementation of a Master Plan for urban transport redevelopment in the town of Aalborg (the Aalborg Project) provides an interesting policy framework I just can’t resist blogging about.  It’s just so close to what is going on in Tasmania today.

Flyvberg proposes ten propositions to understand the fragmentation of a project that, prima facie, appears “comprehensive, coherent, and innovative, ...based on rational and democratic argument”.  And when we talk about fragmentation in policy terms, we’re talking about a whole lot of disappointed hopes and dreams and unintended outcomes, as well as the occasional getting it right, no matter how it’s been muddled through over a period of a decade or more.

As its taken a while to get my copy of the whole book (let alone read it in detail), I’ll entertain you with his propositions only.

Flyvberg’s Propositions.

First the list and after that, I believe I’ll be able to start, blog by blog over time, to address them all in the context of Tasmanian local government reform.  It may be that we can wait a year or two as this whole process plays out, however, a few predictions may also be warranted over time, if not a few questions for the gentle reader to ponder.

Proposition 1: Power defines reality

Proposition 2: Rationality is context-dependent; the context of rationality is power; and power blurs the dividing line between rationality and rationalisation.

Proposition 3: Rationalisation presented at rationality is a principal strategy in the exercise of power.

Proposition 4: The greater the power, the less the rationality.

Proposition 5: Stable power relations are more typical of politics, administration and planning than antagonistic confrontations.

Proposition 6: Power relations are constantly being produced and reproduced.

Proposition 7: The rationality of power has deeper historical roots than the power of rationality.

Proposition 8: In open confrontation, rationality yields to power.

Proposition 9: Rationality-power relations are more characteristic of stable power relations than of confrontations.

Proposition 10: The power of rationality is embedded in stable power relations rather than in confrontations.

And there we have them.  What a cornucopia of policy interpretation possibilities.

My first prediction on the reform process would be that smaller rural councils are less likely to go down the road of amalgamation and more likely to take on ideas such as shared services.  For an explanation of this, see my next blog.

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