Tag Archives: Society

Smaller local governments are more effective, robust, and innovative

The NSW Local Government Review Panel has proposed amalgamating many of NSW’s councils into larger mega-councils, including one Sydney metro behemoth comprising at least Sydney City, Randwick, Waverly, Woollahra and Botany Bay. This council would govern from six to eight hundred thousand residents. The proposal includes two other amalgamations into council areas exceeding half a million residents too (and Blacktown is projected to clear that bar alone in the next 20 years).

Amalgamating successful independent councils into mega-councils runs counter to the review’s stated goals of building a sustainable system of local government up to the challenge of strategic change and rapid innovation. Larger institutions  necessarily have a less local focus. Concentrating more power in fewer hands increases the risks of, temptations to, and damage caused by pursuing human self-interest, necessitating more structure, checks and balances, red tape, and other security mechanisms. And larger councils are less able to experiment, a crucial component of innovation, as the cost of making the necessary mistakes increases beyond that politically justifiable.

Politics is the price we pay for increasing the size of the groups and institutions we form. Mega-councils will mean more politics, more overhead, more corruption, and less change. Read my submission to the review opposing mega-council amalgamations. You, too, can make a submission until the extended deadline of July 19th.

Lord Rees on the risks of connectedness

On Friday I was lucky enough to see Martin, Lord Rees, Baron of Ludlow and Astronomer Royal, speak at Sydney University. I asked a question after the lecture, and Rees’s response was unexpected and interesting.

Rees had talked about how he is a technological optimist, but political pessimist. That is, he’s optimistic that science and technology will answer questions and produce solutions to the critical problems humanity will face over the next century as we overreach our planet’s resources. But he’s pessimistic that large groups of people and their representatives will act appropriately to implement the solutions, or even just refrain from directly causing a massive disaster.

So I asked what humans could to today to help ensure that societies and politicians in the future will take the right actions.

I’ll confess I had already thought about the answer I was looking for while listening to his lecture, a product of both what he said and my own recent musings. I was expecting something about widening the availability and understanding of the knowledge that scientific endeavour is providing – informing the masses – and perhaps a dash of increasing connectedness between humans over the globe: improving the cohesion in our global village, our sense of shared fate, even increasing empathy for our fellows.

Instead, after noting that he was far from alone in his political pessimism, Lord Rees suggested acting to minimise the risks of a highly networked society. When humans are so tightly connected in such complex, fragile systems, the impact of small mistakes or malicious deeds can be great. What will happen, for example, when biological viruses are as easy to create as their computer kin? Many humans showed a great desire to unleash computer viruses just because they could. In the global village, the village idiot has global reach. Our tight interconnectedness is dangerous.

The global economy and resource networks are similarly complex, fragile systems that we are far from fully understanding (and probably never will). So while I was going for greater interconnectedness as a gain, Rees is more keenly aware of the risks. Though I’m not sure he would actually disagree with the view I had formed: he happened to mention Facebook and thinks that it’s beneficial, privacy erosion and all. This social connectedness means that we are watching each other, humans paying attention to our friends’ and relatives’ behaviour. It’s harder to go rogue when your social network will notice and, likely, try to pull you back. And, I think, less likely, when such easy social connections increase our sense of belonging to a community, of being one of a tribe.

UPDATE: a video of Rees’s lecture is now available on the Sydney Ideas site.