ETHOS Issue 25, April 2023
A Shift in Public Discourse
Over the past few years, there has been a signiﬁcant shift in the global public conversation. In Europe, this was the outcome of several crises: there was the COVID-19 pandemic and its shock to supply chains, but there were also massive ﬂoods, and massive heatwaves that have even caused a collapse in the electric grid in some large cities. There was COP26, that raised dire warnings about potential damage and loss from climate impacts. And then there was the Russian invasion of Ukraine and all its implications (including its energy implications), and a growing unease with relying on China.
There has been a change in the master frame, from a debate about balancing growth with sustainability, to a perspective in which every issue must be seen through the prism of a now tripartite trade-off between growth, sustainability and security.
It is not just that there is new awareness about the drivers of change, but also that the rate of change is accelerating. It turns out that climate change is speeding up, just like media and technology is, and along with it related challenges such as chronic disease, an ageing population and so on. In this new light, it is no longer enough to tweak policy and tinker at the edges to address issues. Increasingly, a whole-of-society approach is needed to address the challenges that confront us. It is not just good to have everyone on board now: it’s a necessity.
This suggests that we will also need a different kind of language and vocabulary for public discourse. I was part of the UK think tank that came up with the concept of co-creation and co-production in the past, but that was from an old era of affluence and choice. We were inviting people to co-produce their own health outcomes or take ownership of their own diets and so on. There was something empowering about this approach. But we are no longer in the same world. Now we are in a situation where we need to appeal explicitly to people’s sense of responsibility, in an era that is more characterised by necessity and emergency. You wouldn’t talk about 'co-creating' a war effort, for instance. This is about sacrifice in some ways. But I think people can rise to this challenge if they are asked to play a part for something bigger than themselves.
Now we are in a situation where we need to appeal explicitly to people’s sense of responsibility, in an era that is more characterised by necessity and emergency.
This could also be aspirational: in Singapore, it could be about reframing the story so that Singaporeans are called to contribute their particular expertise not just to the country but also to a changing world, to help solve humanity’s challenges for the future.
Strengthening Public Participation
This is work that needs to be carried out across society. In this regard, the most important thing that governments can do is to share expertise—and in fact expertise can be co-created! Raising awareness is important, but it needs to be rooted in understanding, in facts, and so on. It is not enough for expertise to be held by governments or civil servants: and it is not enough for it to be shared out, so that public deliberation is well-informed. That’s a ﬁrst step. But it needs to go further: the public needs to be involved in creating and elaborating that expertise. This is what will make its use legitimate and less questioned.
Deliberation is going to be crucial, because people need to understand how things work when they are asked to make and also accept decisions: even minor or local ones. This is how we help bridge the gap and ﬁght fake news: by not just sharing information, but also having discussions and involving people. Just like you don’t learn how to drive a car only by reading the manual but by getting behind the wheel, so citizens need experience in being involved in civic issues and making decisions.
Public participation is a muscle. People need to be asked to exercise it regularly, and this needs to be a fact of life.
You see this in participatory budgeting, where people realise that even in the best case, you only get to play around with about 4% of the total national budget: the rest of it has already been allocated to education, health, housing and so on. And that’s one of the first lessons: to realise how little leeway policymakers have to make these discretionary decisions. To learn how to take responsibility, citizens need to walk a little in decision-makers’ shoes, both to feel empowered, but also to realise what the real constraints are. For instance, as pension reform triggers protests around France, it is striking how little people understand about the constraints on public spending in the future.
Beyond sharing information and more inclusive involvement, public deliberation also needs to be granted time to be effective and powerful. Peter Macleod, who runs a deliberation design studio called MASS LBP,1 based in Toronto, argues that people should see civic deliberation, public consultation and public decision-making like jury duty or national service—something that they will be called upon a few times in life to do to play their part in their community. Public participation is a muscle. People need to be asked to exercise it regularly, and this needs to be a fact of life.
An important aspect of public participation is to move from what we have collectively thought of as a one-way street government engaging with citizens—to citizens engaging the other way as well. But just as crucial is to nurture and mediate citizen-to-citizen conversations. While it is important for institutions to open up and be more inclusive, what’s also important is for people to talk to each other. This is necessary for people to think about what they want, to realise others have different priorities, and to be able to disagree and so on. Those conversations with each other (not just with those in power) are the basis of civic life.
This process also requires stewardship. The public sector needs to work with civil society, but you also need to make sure that you create the spaces in which these conversations can take place, and that you have, for instance, an educational curriculum that cultivates this in the classroom. Instead of just shoving information into young people’s heads, they also need to be able to use their time to talk to one another and again, to learn to appreciate differences of opinion, of preferences, of perspectives. It is one of Canada’s great achievements that it has managed to make diversity of views something that Canadians collectively value. This is the basic principle of an open society.
If we want public goodwill, then we have to have ways in which the public can actually develop itself as a public with goodwill. When it comes to collective decision-making, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. All the research shows that people will tend to go along with decisions they may not agree with, but that they know have been arrived at in a fair way, especially if they have been part of the process, even if they disagree with the outcome. While some might be sore losers, most people accept that they may lose today but they might win tomorrow if they have another go. This is why it is so important that the government is involved in this and receptive to the method, because you have to make sure that people have lots of goes at it. And of course, that they are not always on the losing side.
From Exclusive Competence to Inclusive Learning
One of the hardest things for civil servants—particularly in places like Singapore where there has been a tradition of government competence— is being ready to admit that you don't have all the answers. And it is made particularly difficult in contemporary societies in which through forensic social media, one is easily judged as incompetent, thereby leading people to question your legitimacy. But this is also why it is important to involve people in decision-making, so that they learn that nobody, no matter who or where they are, has all the answers. Pretending that you do have all the answers is a much more dangerous game to play than admitting you don’t—because you are going to be found out. There is no getting away from this, because of the complex problems we face and because of a 24-hour, sensationalist media that thrives on prurient headlines and clickbait.
While it is important for institutions to open up and be more inclusive, what’s also important is for people to talk to each other.
The alternative to pretending that all the right processes are already in place and success is absolutely guaranteed, is to start talking from the standpoint that our reality has become fundamentally different. And that while public servants are highly trained to operate in this ﬁeld, they are also grappling with the changes, and are going to need the help and the input of other people around them. And these are complex problems for which everyone is still learning.
As difficult as this sounds for the public sector to admit, I see no real alternative to this positioning. To remain in a place where you present yourselves as having all the answers would be catastrophic. People will not feel involved, and when you get it wrong, they will feel betrayed—that will be the worst possible reaction politically. You cannot engender public goodwill by pretending that everything is under control.
Instead, it is better to tell people things may not turn out well, but we are all trying to do this together. Someone who has warned you there may be disappointment is a person you can continue to trust. What has contributed to populism around the world is the promise of doing something that you know you can’t do on your own. This is the fork in the road for the technocratic elites in public sectors around the world right now. But it will require a signiﬁcant and difficult acknowledgement. It will be important to think about how this can be done, and by whom, in a way that is sobering but inspiring, and yet carry everyone with them.
Kate Raworth argues, through her metaphor of donut economics, that every public narrative has been about growth, taking off, soaring and so on—but that at some point, when a plane takes off, we must remember it cannot just keep going but must land somewhere. At some point, we have to know what we want to achieve.
In a sense, this is what the COVID-19 pandemic started to highlight. And in addressing the climate emergency and other challenges of our time, we know we will have to make difficult choices, which are either costly or less comfortable. Nevertheless, the point is we have to tell people where we want to land. We need to explain what we are asking them to make these efforts.
Ultimately, we want to become societies that look different from where we are now: we have no real choice, because they have been dysfunctional or unsustainable for a while now. Every society will have its own constraints. But we should encourage people to think about where they want to land and what that looks like.
This is why public deliberation and public stewardship are vital as we face our new world.