Published on January 25, 2016

Where’s the Public’s Voice on the Future of the Economy?

Citizens & science People & participation

By Reema Patel

Reema is a Policy Analyst at Involve, working on the Citizens and Science programme - including Sciencewise, the expert national resource centre for public dialogue input into science and technology policy.

The uncertainties of the world’s economic and social future have been exposed at the Davos summit of the World Economic Forum over the past few days. This annual conference is often an opportunity for world leaders and CEOs to look to the future and to begin the conversations necessary to shape their countries’ economic – and married to that – social futures.

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But this time Davos offered, and continues to offer an uncomfortable juxtaposition; the optimism of political world leaders presented a stark out-of-touch contrast to the global turmoil which has wiped billions of pounds off the value of shares across the world and has cast uncertainty over the future of the emerging markets. The direct impact of this turn of events on the futures of millions of people has yet to be realised; but if previous financial crises are anything to go by, it won’t be a pretty sight.

Economic policy, because of its complexity, is an area that very often is not seen as an area appropriate or relevant for public engagement. It is an area in which decisions are taken behind closed doors, announced, and then await the inevitable public backlash that faces them. But it seems that informed, deliberative public engagement between a range of stakeholders (between the public, policy makers, and business) may be more valuable in this policy-area than in any other.

World events in the past 10 years have established that there are record low levels of public trust towards world financial institutions, governments and corporations, and a real need for decision-makers to take proactive steps to rebuild that trust. There is a complex, and increasingly controversial landscape where informed public opinion, and time taken to engage the public could be especially valuable and could offer a fresh perspective. Good, early engagement, which is ‘upstream’ so that that it forms part of the basis of conversations such as those at Davos, has potential to ensure public views and values form part of crucial conversations between elected politicians and senior managers of large companies.

In addition there are large levels of complexity, uncertainty and change associated with economic policy – more so than ever before. We live in a world whose economic future is radically changing at a pace that we find difficult to keep up with. In 2015, the World Economic Forum surveyed 800 IT Communication Executives, and asked them to predict which proportion of which jobs would be automated in any given sector by 2025. The results were disquieting; 83.5% of existing office and admin jobs would no longer exist , just over half of existing service jobs would disappear (55.6%) and 64.8% of sales jobs would also be automated out.

It is apparent at this early stage that the public’s voice on these matters will become prominent and vocal in response to such radical change over the next few years. Policymakers can choose to learn the lessons of the past, engaging the public and their representatives early on in a considered manner, rather than being engulfed by the backlash and reputational disquiet that may follow. A future Davos may want to think more carefully about how such early, informed engagement can take place.

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