2 August 2004

The US just isn't paying attention

There are those who worry about the fate of society in a nation of wilful non-readers, but I worry about the fate of democracy. The consequences of not paying attention are wide-ranging. In corporate America, it's become a problem that workers do not fully read the key corporate documents employers issue for their benefit. Think 'Enron ethics code'. And in public life, details get missed, wrong impressions formed. Headlines substitute for reading past page one.

Total ignorance, one might argue, is in fact better for democracy than a partial ignorance that masquerades as knowledge. At least the totally ignorant sense their limitations. Skimmers, on the other hand, may well occupy the ranks of power and feel a mastery of the information around them. But in truth they have faulty intelligence. After listening to the 'executive summary' on their drive in to work or on the treadmill, they have a false confidence that they know what they need to know.

Little wonder that there is a call to declassify the one-page summary of Iraq intelligence prepared for President George Bush before the invasion. The sheet reportedly omits qualifiers and nuance, creating a much starker sense of the world situation. The Administration's refusal to release the brief document is based on the grounds that it's irrelevant because the full National Intelligence Estimate was released and, according to one official, 'we expect people to read beyond one page'. But most people at home know that they themselves might have read only the cover sheet. They wonder: did the President or his advisers flip past it, or did they stop after glancing at the Cliffs Notes?

Indeed, even the President's chief opponent, John Kerry, acknowledges that he did not read the admittedly lengthy NIE before voting on whether to grant authority to invade Iraq. Skimming, clearly, is a nonpartisan issue.

Sadly, sometimes it seems we are forced to wonder whether any of our leaders ever read their briefing materials at all. Before we blame them, though, let us look at our own habits, and ask whether we are really reading what is before us.

When Nick Greiner replaced Neville Wran as premier of New South Wales in 1988 he came in with a Harvard MBA and a passion for administrative tinkering. A friend worked in 6 different departments during the Greiner premiership without ever changing his actual job.

Greiner inherited a small equal opportunity unit in the Premier's Office. They drafted regulations, the premier approved them and the public service was bound by the premier's directives. Greiner out-posted EEO to agencies. Everyone suddenly had an EEO co-ordinator who drafted an EEO plan that the agency itself promulgated and theoretically followed. The focus shifted from carrying out the centralised EEo directive to having the best plan. Now 1988 was the techn dark ages so EEO plans only circulated among co-ordinators by sneakernet.

Yesterday I had a long talk with my favourite cousin. They've just been promoted from a Sydney job to policy stuff in Canberra. I muttered about the great sneakernet EEO plan binge of 1988. She muttered about the email driven action plan binge of 2004.

I really wonder if the flood of documentation moving through various public and private bureaucracies ever gets read or acted on.

Australia and its allies have just fought a war over weapons of mass destruction which do not exist and human rights abuses which have been grossly exaggerated in order to defeat an enemy who was not there and who was actually strengthened, not weakened, by the war.

Perhaps if we read things a little more slowly the combined intelligence agencies of the coalition of the willing might have been able to out-perform the blogosphere in deciding what was likely to be happening in Iraq. We are now arguing if the failure of intelligence was getting the state of the world wrong or just skimming the papers. The state of the world matters. Who read or failed to read which footnotes does not.

We need a movement for slow government.

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