From an international perspective, 2011 has been a tumultuous year: Occupy Wall Street, economic dominos lined up across Europe, the siege of Libya. Will 2012 bring more of the same?

Well, it depends how quickly and how well we learn the lessons from 2011. Here’s one I think is worth putting on the table: if the last 12 months have shown us anything, it’s that so-called modern governments are little more than relics of the 19th century, and they are creaking like old ships. It’s time to haul them into the 21st century.

Some people will disagree. The system works, they will say, and Greece proves the point. When the chips were down, leaders pulled together and came up with a plan (at the time of writing this article).

Well, maybe. But this is not how the Occupy Wall Street protestors see things. For them, this 11th hour bailout looks more like a colossal failure. How did Greece get to the edge of the precipice in the first place? Are countries like Portugal, Italy and Spain next? And didn’t the whole world just get yanked back from here a couple of years ago?

Contrary to what some commentators think, I don’t think this kind of questioning is just a rant. While the protesters may not have a single, focused message, they do have a powerful and timely point and, ironically, their alleged inarticulateness may be the most eloquent way of making it. Let me explain.

The financial crisis in Europe (and North America) is about much more than bad debt. It is really a crisis in governance. Leaders everywhere should have made a whole litany of decisions long ago, but they didn’t. It’s like none of the fail-safe switches got flipped. What happened?

This is more than a failure of leadership or political will. The real problem is our political culture. New technologies, globalization, population growth and immigration are forcing us to rethink how public policy works and what kind of processes we need to address the issues of the day. Strangely, however, governments are among the biggest obstacles to putting these new ideas to work. The relatively simple, slow-moving world that produced them has been swept away, yet they continue to do business as though nothing has changed.

In fact, we are living in a new and radically different policy environment. It is based on complexity, interdependence and constant change. The international financial crisis is a case in point. It is driven by a huge constellation of events around the globe, from the hair-trigger of the bond market to the explosive rise of China.

The old policy process wasn’t designed for this kind of complexity. That process is based on a simple — or perhaps simplistic — view of how public tensions and disagreements should be resolved. Two opponents confront each other and exchange words until someone wins. To the winner go the spoils.

For example, progressives might argue that poverty in the southern United States is the result of a lack of opportunities for education, while Tea Partiers might reply that overly generous social programs have created a culture of dependency.

If the progressives triumph, resources may be channelled into creating new programs for schools. If victory goes to the Tea Partiers, such programs may be dismantled or scaled back. The working assumption is that, in a fair fight, most of the time the best idea will win.

In today’s world, this kind of policy-making looks quaint, at best. For one thing, in many communities dependency and a lack of education are both causes of poverty. There is probably a host of other causes as well, including ones not yet discovered. It’s like the Occupy movement — does the lack of one, clear demand mean that there are no grievances at all?

Furthermore, because an issue like poverty has multiple causes, finding and implementing solutions requires a range of resources and a network of actors. Thus an effective poverty reduction strategy will likely include shelters for the homeless, social assistance and soup kitchens, but it will also include a range of other measures, such as programs for drug addiction, counselling for mental health, affordable child care for single mothers, flexible job hours, effective training programs, accessible transportation, family and community support networks and so on.

The financial crisis in Europe (and North America) is about much more than bad debt. It is really a crisis in governance. Leaders everywhere should have made a whole litany of decisions long ago, but they didn’t. It’s like none of the failsafe switches got flipped.

Such a strategy can’t be delivered by governments alone. It requires informed and engaged citizens who are ready, willing and able to assume some of the responsibility, as well as a phalanx of community organizations and businesses, which must also do their part. Effective poverty reduction requires a community effort and everyone has a role to play.

So, in this new environment, good policy-making involves two key steps: (1) identification of the right constellation of causes, and (2) the mobilization of a range of organizations and people who can work together to develop and implement a comprehensive plan. We can call this the collaborative approach.

By contrast, old-style, top-down policy-making sees issues like poverty as relatively self-contained and therefore responsive to simple solutions, such as education or tough love. From this viewpoint, it makes sense to think governments can still solve issues by setting the right priorities, forming the right policy, designing the right program and then delivering it to the right people. As for the public, in this world they are largely passive observers.

This brings us back again to the Occupy protestors. In their own way, I think they are trying to say something about complexity. Lots of them will be personally living out the tensions I am describing between the old and new worlds — especially the young people — but have no real vehicle or political language for expressing it.

What I think they really want is a new kind of political voice, one that can better articulate how to reconcile these tensions. Unfortunately, “modern” governments are not equipped to provide it, nor would they know how to respond to such a voice if they heard it.

However, as I show below, a new kind of political voice is not only possible, it seems to be emerging. But finding this voice will take the right kind of policy process and leadership from government.

If the Occupiers had been engaged this way, I think their message would have been quite different. Instead of the raw and angry “Make Wall Street pay,” we might have heard a more methodical and deliberate “Here’s how we can find a better, fairer balance between the conflicting values and priorities in our society.”

Alas, our governments have shown they are either too risk-averse or to unimaginative to take this step. From this perspective, the protesters’ alleged inarticulateness is really a poignant cry to renew governance. There’s genuine irony here, perhaps on the scale of a Greek tragedy.

Now let me backpeddle a bit. Happily, our governments are not quite as out of touch as I’ve just been suggesting. There are encouraging signs that they are moving beyond the old world view. The effort to save Greece is a case in point. It took months of multilateral discussions on a variety of levels to make it work. (Assuming the deal is still in place when this is published.) This rescue was very much a collaborative international effort, as was NATO’s successful intervention in Libya.

However, if collaboration is getting some traction at the international level, governments have been much slower to collaborate on complex national or sub-national issues, such as the development of a new energy policy or reform of the health care system.

The reason, I suspect, is that, as we saw with the poverty example, collaboration at these levels requires the close participation of stakeholders and even citizens, not just governments. Political leaders and policy-makers are nervous about what this implies and unsure how to make it work.

I think the Occupiers would agree with me here when I say that governments have to get over their queasiness about collaboration and learn to engage stakeholders and citizens. Simple solutions no longer suffice. The attachment to old-style policy-making is a vestige from a bygone era. If we want real solutions to the issues of our day, we have to move on.

In fact, this is not such a tall order. As I hope to show below, much of the hand-wringing over collaboration is misplaced. Done right, it is not nearly as difficult or risky as people sometimes think. Governments can and should take the bull by the horns.

To see how, let’s make a detour to Australia, where governments are in the final stages of an innovative pilot project to improve public services through collaboration. There are some timely lessons for Canadians.

Between July and October 2011, the Department of Human Services (DHS) and the Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV) co-sponsored a series of community dialogues in nine municipalities across the state of Victoria.

We are living in a new and radically different policy environment. It is based on complexity, interdependence and constant change. The international financial crisis is a case in point. It is driven by a huge constellation of events around the globe, from the hair-trigger of the bond market to the explosive rise of China.

DHS and MAV assembled small groups of about 30 residents and officials from local governments and community organizations, to see if they could work together with federal and state governments to align services more effectively in each of the nine communities.

The communities varied in size, ranging from about 20,000 to 200,000 residents. Each community held its own dialogue process and has produced its own action plan to improve services in a key service area, such as services to seniors or working families.

These action plans are supposed to involve commitments from all three orders of government, as well as local community service providers and, potentially, even citizen volunteers. As I write this article, the action plans are not yet available, but here are some early findings, based on my interviews with the facilitators, project managers and participants:

  • The participants were ready, willing and able to collaborate: Political strategists and senior managers worry that dialogue processes like these will degenerate into talkfests or whining sessions or get hijacked by special interests. None of this happened. On the contrary, citizens and stakeholders showed that they know how to collaborate responsibly and, given the chance, will do so. People rolled up their sleeves and got down to business.
  • The discussion was holistic: Participants were unanimous in their view that having all three orders of government at the same table with stakeholders and residents made it possible to have a single, comprehensive discussion on how to solve key issues in their community. They further agreed that this more holistic approach was essential for real and rapid progress on the issues under discussion.
  • The dialogue allowed for a more flexible and nuanced response to issues: Traditional policy-making tends to take a one-size-fits-all approach to issues. Such solutions are usually wanting for the simple reason that every community is different. By pushing decision-making down to the local level, each community was able to review its own services and discuss what changes were needed to better meet local needs. This didn’t mean community organizations could eviscerate federal or state policy. It meant they were able to discuss with federal and state officials whether or how their services might be adjusted to better meet local needs.
  • Participants saw the process as the first step in a longer journey: Participants clearly wanted the process to go on. This should be the first round in an ongoing, cyclical process, they urged. No one thought the issues could be solved in a single round. Indeed, participants agreed that they had barely scratched the surface. Nevertheless, they also insisted that this was a very promising start. If federal and state governments remain involved, they said, a real partnership could evolve, based on learning, mutual respect, mutual interest and trust. This new set of governance relationships would make possible real and lasting progress on complex goals, such as a healthy community or a sustainable economy.
  • Residents felt like governments were finally listening: Residents reported that they felt genuinely engaged by the process and enthusiastic about the possibilities. They also played a key role in the discussion. Facilitators noted how the residents acted as a check on bureaucratic digressions and logjams. Still, residents were careful not to overplay their hand or badger officials. They listened attentively and inserted themselves when they felt officials were getting off track or ignoring their concerns.
  • Public engagement could be used to address many other issues: The positive response from the communities shows that, if the three levels of government were willing to work together, this collaborative

What can Canadians learn from this Australian experience? Let me make five important points. First and foremost, the project should help officials get over their jitters about collaboration. While the action plans have yet to be tabled, it is clear that the participants took their roles seriously, engaged in productive discussions and avoided the kind of theatrics that terrify officials.

Second, in a collaborative approach, government is not the only decision-maker and actor. When it comes to complex issues, its role is, first of all, to convene and lead processes that will unite the players around a shared solution and plan of action; and, second, to make an appropriate contribution to the action plan as a major partner in the process.

Third, giving stakeholders and citizens a real say in developing the solutions does not mean that they can tell government what to do, any more than it can tell them what to do. In a collaborative relationship, everyone still makes their own decisions, but they commit to doing so by sitting down together to discuss the issues and options. Everyone, including government, is expected to listen to the others, try to find common ground and make reasonable compromises, so that decisions can be made together. It is the facilitator’s job to enforce the rules.

Fourth, small focused dialogue processes like these offer a new and very promising way to engage the public on big policy issues, such as climate change or health care reform. By the time a process completes two or three cycles of discussion, most communities will have worked their way into the bigger policy issues lying behind services.

For example, discussions about community health will lead to discussions of health care reform; concerns over recycling or landfill sites will raise the issue of climate change; and so on. However, coming at big issues this way changes how they are discussed.

The views of community members will be shaped by the dialogue process, which requires that they listen, learn, make compromises, weigh alternatives, and set priorities — and that they do this together. Moreover, all this takes place in the context of a very practical discussion of how to improve services to meet local needs. Finally, this discussion will include federal and provincial/state officials, who will be sharing their perspectives.

The long-term result of such a dialogue should be a far more informed public discussion, a gradual alignment of policies and views across the community and the three levels of government, and a much better balance between competing views and objectives.

This brings me to the fifth and final lesson I want to draw, which is about the Occupiers and their alleged inarticulateness. I said earlier that I think what these people are really seeking is a new kind of political voice. I now want to add that the Australian project points the way forward. A successful, ongoing process of this sort would give communities and their members such a voice.

This voice would be far more articulate than our current political voices because it would be more able to express and reconcile the tensions that complexity creates, and it would do so in a way that was cohesive, rather than divisive. It would be more authoritative and more legitimate because it would reflect the community’s considered judgment on the issues of the day, rather than just a collection of opinions.

Finding this voice is neither fanciful nor particularly risky. On the contrary, it is practical and achievable. It is time our governments made a serious commitment to doing so.

Now that would be a great initiative for them to launch in 2012.

Photo: Joe Tabacca / Shutterstock

Don Lenihan
Don Lenihan is a senior associate with Canada 2020.

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