• Opinion
  • November 7, 2018
  • 7 minutes
  • 1

Government needs to change to deal with populism — here’s how

Opinion: It's time for civil servants to give citizens their power back

This opinion piece was written by Joseph Maltby, a change management specialist in the U.S. federal government and chief operations officer at Young Government Leaders. It can also be found in our government innovation newsfeed.


We’re living in a populist moment. But with so much energy devoted to the question of how politics is — or isn’t — addressing this challenge, less attention has been paid to how civil servants should adapt.

Rather than simply waiting for new marching orders from the political world, we can start making necessary changes on our own. The cost of inaction is high, as only a third of Americans trust their government to do what’s right and just 18% of Americans trust it to do the right thing most of the time. Trust in government has also declined across OECD countries. We need different ways of thinking and different models for how government works, or worse changes may be in store.

To understand the need for change, we need to understand the frustrations driving populism.

We’ve all dealt with impenetrable, uncaring bureaucracies, whether public or private. We’ve all found ourselves seething with frustration in a situation where we feel completely powerless. And we can all think of a leader or organization that isn’t held to the same standards that we are.

On top of that, the modern world overwhelms us with information in a way that makes us feel less, not more, powerful.  There are 2.5 quintillions (a million trillions) bytes of data created every day, and 90% of the data in the world was created in the last two years.

The average civil servant is better off than the average citizen, so if we can easily be frustrated by this world, imagine how it feels for the less fortunate.

So what can we do?  For all its faults, digital technology has made it easier to connect and coordinate with people than ever before. Perhaps it’s time to take those tools in hand and rethink the relationship between government and the governed. In a nutshell, the current model is:

  1. Citizens elect politicians to make laws and oversee government bureaucracies.
  2. Bureaucracies make decisions to implement laws, sometimes asking for citizen input.
  3. Citizens elect new politicians, in part based on the decisions those bureaucracies made.

What if we adapted the model of government to give citizens the feeling of having some of their power back?

They could have a direct role in managing and overseeing government organizations.  Depending on the mission and needs of the agency, this role might range from an advisory board with a formal voice in decision-making, to a citizen oversight board with investigative powers, to citizens serving in a governance capacity much the same way that a corporate board of directors serves alongside executives in the private sector.

In the future, digital technology may even allow governments to overcome the logistical obstacles to large-scale direct democracy. That would allow them to empower citizens to vote directly on the most important questions about how government is run, from its budget to its core mandates.

There are several advantages to such a radical experiment.

One, it would start the work of updating the relationship between citizens and their government for the modern age. The current bureaucracy model was designed for the world of the 1800s. Why not use today’s tools and ways of thinking?

Two, giving citizens, even angry citizens, a direct role in their government would help build trust and head off any desire to empower strongmen in exchange for results. It’s better that their frustration is given an outlet in direct engagement than the scarier alternatives.

Three, it would help citizens understand civil servants and their challenges. It’s easy to make simplistic assumptions about government and its trade-offs from the outside.  Having to help make those trade-offs would help them understand their world. It would also create a new class of trusted voices who can speak about, and on behalf of, civil servants to the larger public.

There are potential downsides. Giving a more direct role to citizens might lead to ignorant or harmful decisions, for one. They may believe bad data, or even outright lies, and steer the civil service down dead-end streets. Some experiments with direct democracy in the US, for example, have led to painful stalemates. Trying any form of this empowerment would require building a process to avoid corruption.

But we don’t need to make all these changes at once. Experimenting with these ideas in a variety of situations and agencies, the way technology companies A/B test new concepts and models, would allow us to find which citizen empowerment tools work — without making mistakes on a scale difficult to undo.

Rather than falling into despair, governments can use the challenges of our time to help us find a new, better way to serve our fellow citizens. We can remove the barriers, real and imagined, that create an “us versus them” dynamic. It’s up to us whether today’s sombre mood is permanent, or just the darkness before the dawn. —Joseph Maltby

(Picture credit: Unsplash/Melany Rochester)

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