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Local autonomy in the modern age

Central and local governments should build a platform to better communicate with the community.
Nov 27,2017
The fourth industrial revolution, communal disintegration and the demographic “cliff” due to childlessness are some of today’s most important issues. Science and technology neologisms like Internet of Things, ICT, virtual reality and augmented reality have become everyday language as they seep through industrial sites, workplaces, classrooms and our lives. It may sound behind the times to raise the issue about centralization and local sovereignty in such a fast-changing society.

Some question the effectiveness of greater sovereignty of local governments in a digitalized society with a thinning population. In the age of big data, centralization in power should be more important as dissimilation of state power could undermine national capabilities. I cannot answer with confidence as I too cannot predict the effect of technological changes on our lives and local governments.

Is advancement in technology more beneficial to centralized power and disadvantageous to local sovereignty? Major U.S. cities such as New York, Boston and Chicago are tech-savvy and seek to give more power to community members from the federal and state governments. Canada has drawn up legal and systematic grounds to ensure greater civic engagement and political participation online for checks on the federal government. Their common goal is to realize direct democracy by giving community members equal voting rights with the help of the technological advances of the fourth industrialization age, in order to make up for the limits in representative democracy, where power is centralized around select social elites.

Local sovereignty can breed collective intelligence due to proximity in the policy-making and concerned parties and the speed of feedback on policy decisions. The top-down policy-making procedure in traditional bureaucracy can often delay or lead to bad policy decisions as it takes more time for the public to respond to them. Pierre Levy, who coined the term “collective intelligence,” said that collective idea sharing cannot be bred in totalitarian societies, attributing the fall of the Soviet Union and other socialist states to their systematic limitation in addressing the needs of collaborative and interactive applications.

German scholar Dirk Helbing champions the application of collective intelligence and self-organized control to contain the spread of disaster in his study on “crowd turbulence.” Sharing of information can speed up a solution to a disaster and manage the spread of crisis. Collective power has been accelerated in the frontier-less cyberspace and techno-social establishments. Autonomy and spread of policy-making is the answer in the evolution to a fluid society.

But our society is chained to a rigid bureaucratic system with central, local governments and hierarchical communities. We fail to build on the strengths of a fluid society rich with collective intelligence on digital networks and social media. Our lives won’t change much even with greater liberty in local governments if decisions continue to be made by a selective group and are handed down.

Autonomy should not mean a simple shift in the decision-making from the central to local governments. More importantly, it must aim for a horizontal relationship among central and local governments and communities and establishment of laws and systems to build and employ collective intelligence. In short, the goal should be to set a collaborative decision-making structure. The government should look beyond the hardware changes such as the moderation of national and local taxation and authorization of more power to the police and education authorities. It should work on adjusting the vertical decision-making system towards a horizontal collective society.

There cannot be a straight answer to the relationship between local and central governments as circumstances differ by countries. Central and local governments, the National Assembly and local councils should build a platform to better communicate with the community to bring the public as a whole closer to the government.

Allowing greater and easier civic participation in decisions that affect public lives would make a society that’s more competitive and a better place to live.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 25, Page 29

*The author, a professor at Myongji University, is chairman of the Korea Association for Local Government Studies.

Lim Suhng-bin