Monday, June 17, 2013

Sometimes our institutions work...but not often enough

Last week the US Supreme court ruled out patenting of natural human DNA.  This was an important ruling. It was pleasing to see a unanimous decision. But as noted in this article there are still doubts raised in a myriad ways.  What about patenting genes in other species?  What about distortion of R&D investment due to the attenuation of action?  By this I mean that this action - which may not turn out to be that major - still does not address the main social issues that the technology provokes.  We have an institution-attention attenuation disorder!  Or in other words our historical institutions are not agile enough in our contemporary circumstances. Whilst this ruling overturns 30 years of patent laws it still leaves open the right to patent synthetic genetic material thus raising questions about what the boundaries will become beween synthetic and natural?

I am using institutions here to include organisations, policies, rules and norms i.e., in the new institutional sense.  Collectively we need to be more aware of institutional shortcomings as the news reporting this week was replete with examples of institutions heading for systemic failure!  Firstly there was the English graduate loans leak pointing to a potential systemic failure of governance (i.e., a failure to honour commitments and back-dating new rules). The leak also raises questions about the on-going viability of the institution of student loans itself. Policy makers seem to be seeking incremental, perhaps devious, changes to an insitution that is deeply flawed in the first place. This is a recipe for ultimate systemic failure as incremental tinkering gets nowhere.  

Another example appeared in today's edition of The Observer.  I refer to the undoing (or abandoning) by the Conservatives of a genuinely innovative institutional reform - an 'open primary' that resulted in the election of Sarah Wollaston.  The institution worked like this: 'in 2009 every registered voter in Totnes was sent a form' by the Conservatives and a paid envelope to return it... the selection process was 'thrown open to the people'.  It is clear that the current government no longer has the stomach for this important democratic innovation.  It is bad enough that citizen engagement is being undermined,  but Helm's article also points to more profound examples of systemic failure of governance. Top of my list are the ways in which the House of Commons operates. As any viewer of Borgan - the fictional show about the Danish PM - knows the Danish Parliament has a very sophisticated electonic means of voting. One can speculate that this allows for more democracy compared to the Whip controlled (read Executive controlled) voting process in Westminster. It is the institutions that have passed their use by date (such as voting procedures in the Commons) that we need to fear and get rid of. As Helm's article shows many of these are associated with process issues that undermine democracy in action. 

Michael Rosen's well argued open letter to Education Secretary Michael Gove (Michael Rosen's letter from a curious parent) explicates yet another example of governance reform heading off in the wrong direction. Behind these institutional innovations sit Ministerial powers that have never been so great.  The governance checks and balances (e.g. local authorities; boards of governors) have all but disappeared in the key decision-making processes.

Writing in 1980 the late Russ Ackoff claimed that the 1940s marked the start of the 'systems age'.  If such an age has ever really been with us then examples of the type above point to a descent into a new 'dark age'  in which the doctrines of reductionsim, mechansm and analytical mode of thought along with unfettered and outdated ideology (and in Australia rampant misogyny) have gained a new supremacy.