This opinion piece was written by Joseph Maltby, a change management specialist in the U.S. federal government and a member of Young Government Leaders.
Political disagreement has gone beyond disputes over the right thing to do: basic facts are now sources of conflict. People disagree about which pieces of evidence are real, what they mean and who can be considered a reliable source. Leaving aside the question of why this is happening, there’s another question to answer about what it means for government and the work of civil servants.
What might the next 10-20 years look like for government? There are three scenarios to choose from. Which one do you find most convincing?
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Scenario 1: It Gets Better
The most optimistic scenario is that these are temporary birthing pains of the digital age that will pass. Presumably, our inability to agree on what the facts really are is being caused by a combination of changes in how the media functions, the effects of new technologies, the presence of particular political personalities, and the events of recent decades leading to an unusually low level of citizen faith in public institutions.
After all, we’re literally living in a brand-new world: only in 2009 did 75% of American adults start regularly using the internet.
Under this scenario, most citizens will return to agreeing about what is true and who can be trusted once this historical moment passes, which means there’s no urgent need to drastically change the way government functions. Instead, civil servants simply need to be patient and minimize the damage while cultivating a new generation of digitally savvy government workers.
Scenario 2: It Stays The Same
A less optimistic scenario is that this is the new normal; that the proliferation of multiple versions of reality is here to stay.
If that happens, civil servants will need to change how they think about their roles and how they think about the concept of “facts.” The idea that some ideas, pieces of evidence, or sources of information are simply illegitimate and should be dismissed will be a strategic liability in a world where there’s no such thing as a “mainstream source.” Government organizations won’t be able to rely just on their expertise or authority to convince citizens anymore and every idea and every argument will need to be addressed.
That means marketing and communications will become a much bigger piece of what government does. We’ll need to get the evidence and our arguments out into the world and establish a narrative before anyone else does.
Government will also need to be more transparent than ever before. Without the trust of citizens, government can do nothing, and trust can’t be assumed when many citizens start off believing the worst. Governments will need to prove over and over again that they aren’t up to anything by being open about the good, the bad, and even the ugly.
Government organizations will also need to understand who has credibility with different sections of the public and find a way to use that credibility to support their own expertise and judgment. This credibility might come from sources which seem foolish, like celebrities or social media influencers, but refusing to take advantage of it is short-sighted.
Scenario 3: It Gets Worse
An even more pessimistic possible future is that the disagreements and anger we’re experiencing now could get worse. The challenges we face with new technologies may just be the beginning, as we are rapidly approaching a world where it’s possible to fake convincing video and audio of anyone, including public figures.
There’s a level of basic agreement about the world that is required for a political or social unit to function, let alone to solve the types of complex, interwoven, global problems we face right now. No one knows how much disagreement we can experience before we hit that point.
On top of the above recommendations, government would need to go further. One of the best ways to keep citizens supportive is for them to feel like they have power over their own destiny. Which decisions and levels of control can be pushed down to lower levels of government and smaller pieces of the organization that are closer to the citizens we all serve?
This is borrowing from an old idea — federalism — that exists to address these challenges. It may be necessary to allow much more difference in policy between different areas so that citizens who violently disagree can live in peace.
It might also be wise to change the way government organizations are run so citizens have a formal governance role. The technology exists to make this possible in a way that wasn’t true in the past. People trust their fellow citizens in ways they don’t trust civil servants, even though we’re their neighbours.
This is a tough future to imagine, let alone plan for, but the worst case scenarios are bad enough to justify being ready. We can’t assume that things will always go on as they have. Every government faces change. Better to rethink politics and government to find peace than to face increasing distrust and all the problems that brings.
Who better to do this hard work than we civil servants who are dedicated to making government work today, tomorrow, and in all futures? — Joseph Maltby
(Picture credit: Pexels)