The Key Ideas

#26 Democratise the governance of public institutions

Government is not the only part of the public realm which should belong to us. There are many organisations and institutions which are part of the commons but not directly part of government (quangos, agencies, universities and colleges, and so on). At the moment the way that these institutions are managed and governed is at best short of democratic best practice, and at worst entirely undemocratic. In the case of agencies and quangos, generally the governing body is appointed by a government Minister and generally (other than sometimes in the case of the chair of a governing body) it is a mainly private and secret process. Civil servants make suggestions and the Minister chooses between them. With some other organisations such as universities, there is absolutely no democratic element at all. The governing body appoints itself in perpetuity based on recommendations coming from the chief executive's office (even though the chief executive is who the Board is supposed to govern).

All of this results in a situation where large parts of the governance of the public realm (and the governance of lots of key public functions and the oversight of large amounts of public money) is done by a self-selecting group which has absolutely no requirement to respond to anything or anyone other than themselves. And of course, the profile of these people is heavily skewed towards the very wealthy and involves a very disproportionate number of people from within the same social networks.

This has all the problems of 'expert groups', except these people are often not selected for their expertise but because they are 'respected' (as in 'the respected business leader...' or 'the respected lawyer...'). Of course, being respected is a subjective idea and in this case almost always means 'respected by other business leaders and other lawyers'. And being respected may well mean not challenging orthodoxies or asking difficult questions. This is government by one social class, appointed by that same social class, and answerable only to that social class.

This semi-feudal model really should be challenged. It offers no space for debate or consideration of the role, function, or actions of an institution on the part of its stakeholders or those it affects. Students or staff have little to no say on the strategy or policy of a university, artists no say on the policy of its funding agency, the registered disabled no say on who might be appointed as a 'disability tsar’, and so on. If there were democratic elections to the governing bodies of these institutions, not only would the boards be much more reflective of the views of a wider group in society and bring in new blood and fresh talent from groups which currently appear excluded (for example, anyone on low or medium incomes), it would also require an honest and open debate about the role and purpose of the institution and its strategy. In almost every case, it is possible to identify a coherent 'community' which these institutions serve. There is simply no reason they cannot open up democratic elections to these governing bodies, requiring people to stand on manifestos explaining what they would do if they were part of that governing body. Improved digital technology is now readily available to make such elections eminently doable.