Across the world, in the wake of massive disruptions in demography, technology and the economy, large numbers of citizens are struggling to adapt and popular pressure is building on governments to deliver solutions. From Lebanon and Malaysia to Guatemala and Romania, there are demands for real reforms and to address real problems: to counter corruption and generate decent jobs; to provide access to health and education; to modernize infrastructure and to collect the rubbish.
Much popular dissatisfaction today is driven by the failure of governing elites to respond to the wants and needs of the people. In a connected world, this gap between government and the people has become perilous. To respond to rising pressure, governments must put citizens’ needs and preferences at the centre of decision-making, and ensure that the people’s voice is heard.
In some places, such pressure is dismissed as ‘populism’, in the face of unruly and prejudiced street movements. Elites have been too quick to dismiss this popular backlash without trying to understand the underlying issues. While some people’s participation in populist movements can be explained by racist or xenophobic thinking, the majority are those who see their jobs disappearing and feel uncertainty about their futures.
The movements are in large part about whether governments are responsive to citizens, who are now expressing their distrust of an establishment that they see as self-serving and unresponsive to their needs and demands. They believe that the policies advanced in the halls of power and bureaucratic offices don’t adequately address their problems and fears.
Very often, they’re right. Decisions are taken at too high a level in bureaucracies that seem far removed from people’s daily lives. Policymakers have, in some cases, advanced an agenda that appeals to urban and moneyed elites, but ignored the industrial heartlands. Globalisation hasn’t delivered on the promises made to working class constituencies. The Naples and Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization in the 1990s were a precursor to the Occupy movement a decade later; a foretaste of danger to come. Real wages have not risen in the United States for 15 years. And in the wake of the 2008-9 financial and fiscal crisis, the wealthy had their bailouts, but regular people did not.
If, in response to popular discontent, political parties continue to dig in their heels, the populist agenda will become more and more divisive. The better approach is for political leaders and parties on both the left and right to take the public’s concerns seriously and seek to identify a common and coherent agenda around which both sides can rally. Ensuring that governments are responsive to the needs and desires of their people, both in what they provide, and in how they provide it – allowing citizens to participate in decision-making – will be essential.
“We must recognise that governments are in place to serve their citizens, not to service the needs of the bureaucracy”
Courses of action will of course vary by country, by region and by city. But these should be based on a set of six core principles.
First, recognise that governments are in place to serve their citizens, not to service the needs of the bureaucracy. Political parties must do a better job at setting policy agendas that focus on responsive governance for all citizens and not just vocal interest groups or the portion of the country that voted them into power. Governing agendas must address citizens’ basic needs: healthcare, education, infrastructure, skills and quality jobs.
Second, understand the importance of the way government policy is implemented. Vast networks of lobbying companies, big consulting firms and government budget insiders cut sweetheart deals with each other and capture policy for special interests. Officials often use a ‘revolving door’ to switch from government to company, and vice-versa. Pressure groups consciously or unwittingly block the forces of positive disruption that would shock governments into adapting to today’s world. This flow of influence, budgets and contracts does not serve the broader public.
Third, government services should take advantage of the digital age and be reinvented as platforms for service delivery. Critically, these platforms must be seen as public utilities. We must resist the temptation to let them be privatised and monopolised by corporations – a recipe for neo-feudalism and exclusion. And services must become cheaper: the (inflation-adjusted) costs of core services such as healthcare, education and social services have risen dramatically over the last 50 years. People are paying more but receiving less. An embrace of cost-effective digital delivery can enable faster decision-making cycles and allow for greater responsiveness to citizens’ concerns.
Fourth, understand that the voice and participation of citizens is essential. People have felt ignored, neglected, looked down upon. The desire to make themselves counted – sometimes quite literally as one of many at a protest – is in part a consequence of being excluded from decision-making. In most countries, channels for public participation exist – sitting on a school board, lobbying an elected representative, or taking part in a consultation – but these do not necessarily meet the needs of today’s citizens. The American political philosopher John Dewey, writing in the 1920s, argued that the state is just a mechanism that should do what citizens want it to do in any moment in time; the challenge is how to find the right mechanisms to produce a public consensus on the role and functions of the state. For citizens, good governance means being heard.
This requires mechanisms for governments and the media to listen to people and to understand the specific drivers of disaffection and malaise. Instead of dismissing vast constituencies, these centres of power must try to understand the root causes of their distrust of the elite by really hearing what those communities have to say, and then put forward constructive policy measures to address the issues raised.
“We must guard against nationalism but preserve a common sense of nationhood”
Fifth, recognise that a common identity for a political community is healthy. Identifying on the basis of membership in a nation state has great advantages. We must guard against nationalism – meaning rejection of the ‘outsider’ or the supremacy of the state over the individual (rather than the state being the servant of the people). But to preserve the sense of common political community that underpins our democratic system, it is important to have a common sense of nationhood, and a common identity based on a location – whether a city, province, state or nation – in the form of civic nationalism. This can also balance the current trend towards identity politics.
Sixth, anticipate the future. The countries that are adapting to our new century well are those that are thinking ahead and using foresight tools and policy planning to craft industrial and post-industrial strategies. As new technologies and economic realities continue to disrupt the landscape there will be a measure of adapting to the inevitable, but there is still vast scope to shape the policy environment to the needs of people.
What would these principles mean for different parts of the world today? In the Middle East, six years on from the false dawn of the Arab Spring, people are still protesting in the streets and agitating online, refusing to give up the search for more responsive government. In countries that have experienced decades of authoritarian rule, the social contract between citizen and state has been fractured, and must be rebuilt. In the United States, a new common agenda is needed to link the middle of the country and its coastal regions, based on core common interests – decent work; opportunity; cost-effective education and healthcare; revived infrastructure.
In Europe, it means rethinking the European idea so that it puts the needs, interests and desires of its citizens at the centre, and gives real meaning to the principle of subsidiarity, allowing nation states to set their own agenda and continuing to allow local regions to find the right policy mix for their circumstances. Across these regions, we must recognise that cities, states and districts are where the bulk of decisions are made – and that the question is usually not a stark choice between centralisation and decentralisation but figuring out at which level each function should be provided.
Citizens are on the march. If the governing elites do not respond, in the form of more responsive government and more accountable leadership, the voices will only get louder. But if governments get ahead of the trends, there is a pathway to renew the social contract and reinvent government for the 21st century.
IMAGE CREDIT: chris cintron/Bigstock