We know at least two things about the Tories, and they are probably connected. Firstly, they want to cut spending on public services substantially, even if this doesn't make a tremendous impact on Britain's budget deficit. And secondly, they want to amplify the 'power of information' that the internet can exert over government services and transparency. This Prospect article suggests that "The starting point will be to flood the public sector with information. No budget will be secret or hard to track down." Their capture of Tom Steinberg - "the coding man's Richard Dannatt" - confirms that they may be serious about rethinking some of the basic protocols of how government information is organised. I've speculated on what such 'conservatism 2.0' might look like in the past.
The potential connection between public sector efficiency and liberating information works as follows. Bureaucratic inefficiency and under-performing public services become impossible to conceal. Government comes under the spotlight of (what I've heard Michael Power term) the permanent audit. Pressure from users of public services rises, as they are empowered to know how much better or more efficient the government could be. Presumably the media is expected to be a willing accomplice in this holding to account, although that will no doubt look like masochism within weeks of the Tories taking office
In principle, this means that conventional auditting could gradually wane, as this Demos report suggests. And in principle, this introduces a new phase for the neo-liberal state.
The paradox of the neo-liberal state has always been that it is managed by self-loathing bureaucrats. It has conducted a recurring rationalist critique of its own rationality, constantly restructuring, reinventing, reimagining its own loathed inefficiencies, but never being able to settle on anything that can be agreed on as efficient. Hence the endless present participles; it is constant work in progress. This paradox explains why attacks on 'middle management' and the public sector tend always to inflate both: the only means of criticising and stream-lining a bureaucracy is to hold it up to a bureaucratic critique. Decentralisation to 'the front line' requires ever greater centralisation of power to be enacted.
The Tories now suggest we are entering the 'post-bureaucratic age', and promise a state suited to it. Up until now, neo-liberalism has been not so much a post-bureaucratic project, as a meta-bureaucratic one - it is a constant critique of the state, from a position of supposed neutral economic rationality.
For the Tories' claim to hold up in any way, the alleged power of decentralised information has to be realised. Lets assume, for the sake of argument, that consumer and media pressure is able to genuinely impact upon bad public services and wasteful government practices. And lets assume, for the sake of argument, that there are no class imbalances in the ability to convert information into power (i.e. that those dependent on social services simply need more information, in order to become the equivalent of the pushy middle class parent at the gates of the primary school). Then lets assume, for the sake of argument, that the piling of audit upon audit, of meta-analysis upon meta-analysis, could gradually go into decline, what sort of state would we have?
My instinct is that this would certainly deliver transparency, might offer a version of accountability, but would fail to achieve legitimacy. Here's why.
Our old friend Weber tells us that the legitimacy of the modern state lies chiefly in its capacity to know with some degree of objectivity and to process with some degree of efficiency. The neo-liberal attack on the state is an attack on the possibility of this centralised expert knowledge, based on Hayek's resolutely post-modern claim that objective knowledge is not only impossible, but a more dangerous ambition than the distributed opinion represented by the marketplace. The irony, of course, is that this critique is generally marshalled by alternative elites - central bankers, economists, consultants. But as Philip Mirowksi argues in his post-script to the magnificent new essay collection, The Road from Mont Pelerin, the consummation of neo-liberalism is in fact manifest in wikipedia, where a collective perspective on the world is the closest that we can get to knowledge.
But as Mirowksi also argues, Hayek was entirely unconcerned with the Weberian problem of state legitimacy. He had a Schmittian, nihilistic or Leninist zeal, which drove the neo-liberal project forward with no regard for its authority. Claims to authority were intrinsically suspect and a threat to liberty, which made initiating a legitimacy crisis a necessary political act. An illegitimate dictator who safeguarded economic freedoms was a safer bet than a legitimate state that claimed to know what was best. (The Chicago School involvement with the Pinochet regime is a case in point.)
So, following Mirowski, we might say that 'government 2.0' is the final realisation of the neo-liberal state. No auditors, no experts, no objective knowledge, no sense of the common good, just maximum freedom for individuals to form opinions and privately process information. As David Weinberger says in triumphant Hayekian style, "transparency is the new objectivity." In some instances, consumer perspectives may form the basis of action - demanding change if they're a prominent journalist or campaigner, selecting a different service supplier if they're a fortunate lay-person, or just mouthing off on facebook if they're not so lucky.
But siding with perspective over expertise cannot be the basis for legitimacy. Allowing people to express their frustration or disappointment, but without offering dialogue or improvement at the end of it, removes the security offered by expertise, but without offering anything in its place. Auditors act as the critics of experts, but they do so from some rival position of expertise; they damage legitimacy, but partly so as to then rebuild it. By contrast, a state laid bare only to the audit of general public dissatisfaction is surely heading towards a legitimacy crisis.
Of course there is a sunnier tradition of political thought than Weber's, in which democracy plays the central role in determining the legitimacy of the state. Lets not forget that Hannah Arendt also elevated opinion over expertise, as the necessary condition of politics. Perhaps, Tories might argue, this is not about knowledge and efficiency at all, but about participation. Perhaps. The fear is that, by forging a path between the instrumentalist Weberian defence of the state and the democratic Habermasian defence (a path manifest in the concept of 'civic hacking' that mySociety represents), that we get some hybrid of bureaucracy and democracy, that is neither quite as effective as the former, nor as empowering as the latter.