The historic received wisdom amongst participation experts has been that quality engagement with the public is incompatible with government in crisis mode. Quality participation processes need a long lead-in for planning, and when under pressure governments want and need to get on with making quick decisions and avoid getting ‘slowed down’ by citizen engagement.
I think it’s time to revisit this wisdom, and explore whether it might be possible to overcome some of the challenges and bring meaningful citizen voice to decisions that are being made fast; when events happen suddenly and the status quo is thrown up in the air.
Crisis is the new normal
There is a growing consensus amongst policy makers, economists, academics and other commentators that we are likely to see an increased number of crises in the coming decades. As we feel the effects of climate change, continue to deal with the fall out of the financial crisis and adapt to an era of increasing uncertainty and turbulence, crisis has become ‘the new normal’. With interconnections across our economy, society, politics and environment, it is likely that many of these crises may not be easily ‘contained’, that they will challenge government’s departmental boundaries (amongst many other things) – and even the efficacy of government itself.
If crisis is an increasingly important part of the way our country and our world takes shape; and citizens have limited scope for effectively engaging at moments of crisis, then citizens will become locked-out of decision-making when it matter most. If participation experts don’t find a way to develop quality public engagement processes that can work in a crisis, then we can expect to see citizen voice relegated to the backwaters of policymaking – only involved when issues are predictable, timetabled and comparatively petty. Meanwhile, we will see the gulf of mistrust between the public and elites grow to levels that may constitute a crisis in themselves.
Don’t squander a good crisis
Experts are by definition rooted in the status-quo, which gives them their legitimacy and status. If experts are the only people involved in decision-making at moments of crisis, we can expect a bias towards finding ways to maintain the status quo and return to ‘business as usual’. It might be that citizen involvement might help us to use crisis as an opportunity to tackle deeper, structural problems – which would prevent such crises occurring in the first place rather than simply patching up the existing system.
Variants of this idea are bubbling elsewhere. In the international development and sustainability sector, the excellent Alex Evans and Duncan Green have been arguing that we need to start using crises strategically, to unblock the deadlocked politics around carbon emissions and use those brief moments when the status quo is disrupted to take a step-change forward. They have argued that advocacy teams should learn from the humanitarian sector and get their planning and logistics systems running like clockwork in advance, so that they are ready to move when a crisis hits.
Whatever your politics and values, there seems little doubt that government hasn’t yet figured out its crisis-mode very well. My hypothesis is that one of the reasons that government and other elites are failing to lead adequately at moments of crisis is that they are trapped in a bind of arrogance and insecurity. On the one hand, they recognise the opportunity to show strong leadership and feel this is their chance to shine; on the other they fear that they don’t have enough of a mandate to think big when the cards get thrown up in the air. There are often a range of moral questions in play which may not have been previously rehearsed and tested – and the safe option is to stay within precedents.
I’m working on an idea to see whether there’s a way to tie these challenges and opportunities together, and find a way to build effective public engagement at moments of crisis. It’s working title is Citizen Cobra, named after the government’s emergency committee. If this connects with any projects you are working on or if you have thoughts, suggestions for reading, or people to talk to please do get in touch @AmyRPollard.