Progressive Futures

Too late for therapy?

22 August 2016

How can we improve the relationship between citizens and the state?

Geoff Mulgan

A lot is known about what makes relationships work. There needs to be trust and mutual respect, a willingness to accept differences, and a good mix of support, care and communication.

Very similar considerations apply to the relationship between states and citizens and by any historical standard the quality of the relationship between democratic states and their citizens is good. They are more open, supportive and honest than ever before.

But many citizens and commentators feel the opposite. Indeed it often looks as if we have moved from one set of unhealthy relationships – based on excessive servility and deference – to another set of unhealthy relationships marked by seething resentment and distrust, without even pausing for breath along the way.

So what is to be done? What might a healthier relationship look like? Is it too late for therapy? Here I suggest some answers.

We should start by disaggregating the question. The relationship between citizens and states is not singular. We relate to states in many different ways: as voters, campaigners, service users, or quiet beneficiaries of the state’s capacity to provide peace or a stable economy. One dimensional views, whether romantic or cynical, can be misleading. Survey evidence confirms the public’s differentiated feelings, with usually much more trust in those parts of the state which are close at hand and interacted with directly rather than observed indirectly through the media.

Each of these very different kinds of interaction then needs to be attended to as a relationship. The managerial theories that had so much influence in the last decades of the 20th century lost sight of this. It was sometimes useful to think in the language of outputs and outcomes. But for the public it mattered how these were achieved too, just as in personal relationships we do not just want a spouse who will deliver a pay cheque or clean the house well.

A few years ago I argued in a series of papers that we needed to think in terms of a ‘relational state’. That meant addressing what kinds of relationship citizens actually wanted.  The romantics tended to assume that the ideal relationship had to much more active. But in some cases people wanted a more impersonal, frictionless and automated relationship with the state (paying taxes, applying for licenses). In other cases, however, they did want it to be much more human and engaged (eg with doctors, local police or politicians themselves).

Ethnography, conversation and deep listening can help in disentangling what is appropriate. These have become a prominent theme for the hundreds of public innovation labs that have grown up in national, regional and local governments around the world (Nesta helps link a network of them, providing newsletters, training and regular gatherings). A high proportion of these labs emphasise citizen experience, as well as new uses of technology and data. And many aim to restore public trust.

Most of their projects focus on the practicalities of service delivery: jobs, education, taxation or transport. But some are also interested in rethinking democracy itself in a more active, relational way. That does not mean perpetual referendums, a democracy of Facebook likes and binary choices. Instead, platforms like DCENT, which Nesta developed with a group of European partners, make it easier for citizens to track issues, to propose ideas, to comment, and in some cases to vote. These – now in use in cities including Barcelona, Madrid and Helsinki – allow democracy to tap the collective intelligence of the people, as well as harvesting a wider range of ideas.

This richer style of democracy is helped if governments and political parties can be more explicit about goals and means, and constraints, and more open about data and evidence.    We at Nesta advocated and helped establish what are now 10 ‘what works’ centres in the UK providing different fields with syntheses of the state of knowledge – from policing and healthcare to schools and the economy.

The media play a decisive role here. Some do all they can to fuel distrust, to undermine confidence in decision-makers and to promote appealing but impractical solutions. Others act more like mediators and guides, helping each better understand the other’s viewpoints.   That sounds like a long shot. But it is what the best media already do.

For politicians the key, as in any relationship, is authenticity. Leaders need to explain what is and is not possible. Denouncing bureaucrats may win votes in the short term. But too much careless rhetoric corrupts political discourse, leaving inevitably unachievable expectations, cycles of illusion and disillusion. An adult conversation is a precondition for a restored relationship of trust with highly educated publics (the opposite may be true in other situations). There are few things more pathetic than a political leader who feels that they can only follow the public.

The various shifts described above – including a bigger role for evidence, data and citizen engagement – sometimes look to be at war with the alternative strands of ‘post-truth’ politics, and that strange hybrid of journalism and populist politics that sees little virtue in consistency or accuracy. But an optimistic view would see these as the natural direction of travel for more knowledgeable societies, and the only options we have if we want to believe that it is not, after all, too late for therapy.

Photo credit: sakkmesterke / shutterstock