The world around us is fast changing and becoming increasingly difficult to manage. But for too many, life has always been difficult – and the rest of us, including governments, are only just waking up to that. The spread of COVID-19 has created worries about working from home, getting food from our favourite restaurants, schooling our kids and staying healthy. These problems do not compare to the inequalities that, perhaps previously hidden, COVID-19 has now laid bare.
Now that burning injustices have been exposed, we cannot turn a blind eye. Economic inequality, domestic violence, unemployment and racism continue to be lived realities for millions, yet continue to worsen.
Governments that focused on top-down thinking who are wedded to orthodox economics, with narrow measures of success, were found wanting when the real and longer term challenges of COVID-19 became apparent.
It is clear that the politics and systems of the past no longer work for these local, complex and unpredictable challenges.
Many are asking governments ‘why does COVID-19 disproportionately impact people of colour?’. Though we all know the real reason, it has fallen on those who have experienced racism to speak up with the honest answer: systemic racism. Meanwhile, too many still wallow in ignorance, worrying that to speak truth would mean admitting that we have failed our neighbours and friends. It’s difficult to admit this, but we’ve now been forced to reflect on our own privileges. In doing so, we see what our silence and inaction has caused, and begin to think about how we can be different.
The Black Lives Matter protests that began in America echo around the world and make us look at racial injustices in all our countries. On a positive note, we have begun to witness White people who previously stayed silent speaking up, showing up and realising that they need to step up too. The message of racial equality has found a home in the hearts and minds of people of all backgrounds. This is no longer just a movement or discussion around ‘theories of change’, this is becoming a moment of political and social significance.
So, what now for public management?
These colossal events have shown that the world can no longer continue this way. Public management was already struggling to deal effectively and legitimately with many of societies’ problems. We need to lift the bonnet and begin conversations about how power, truth and trust can have pride of place in frameworks and PowerPoints. Because for me, part of the answer lies in understanding what power means, who has it, and how it is used.
I hear many say ‘I’m out of my depth on this’. No you are not. You need to hand power to those who can help – not sit worried. You have support and people want to help.
The twin challenges of COVID-19 and systemic racism, and whatever societal shock comes next, will require difficult conversations about power structures.
It starts with acceptance of truth, and a fundamental reorienting of public service around the moral purpose of government.
Right now, power feels remote; exercised by people who’ve always had it and who don’t seem to want to let go. The dishonesty about how our systems exacerbate inequity works to keep the same people down, and is damaging for the stability of society and the legitimacy of government.
How can we strengthen legitimacy in these times?
Two years ago, CPI asked citizens this question, and their answer resonates even more now. Simply put, they told us to listen to a new truth, one we’ve never heard before.
Break out of bubbles and bring new voices into the ‘room’. Go to their room, give them space, access, psychological safety and power to shape their futures and lead the organisations that control them.
I don’t mean this in a tokenistic way. I mean this in a way that enables bottom-up approaches, sharing power through people panels or citizens assemblies for decision-making, and nationwide deliberation to discover not just what we should do next, but the kind of nation we want to be in the longer term. Governments will need to value new skills such as effectively listening after trauma, and public servants being empathetic with different communities. Many are starting to.
At CPI, we want to help governments see the value of different leadership behaviours. Building authentic connections, bringing empathy into government, listening and responding to voices, handing people the ability to scrutinise decisions and co-creating visions together are all important to becoming more legitimate. These are key to helping marginalised groups who feel that the systems were always stacked against them. Many ask ‘isn’t ignorance from our most powerful and intelligent unforgivable?’ and ‘isn’t inaction a form of racism?’. Only now are we fully understanding that these are true.
To continue waiting for someone else to fix this will spell disaster. It can also result in further unrest and no progress towards renewal. Now is the time to be radical and progressive.
COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter make this thinking, often perceived as fluffy and nice, more effective. You all agreed that women should vote, and that #MeToo mattered (now, you’d support any harasser being turfed out of your organisation), so shouldn’t you call out racism, and the processes and policies that do nothing to correct injustices by acting and thinking differently?
We at CPI have thought deeply about how we can make truth and power a central part of our recovery, from empathy training to more inclusive communities participation and dialogue.
I hope that you’ll be able to join me in exploring these themes in the upcoming ‘Reimagining Government‘ webinar hosted by The Centre for Public Impact, in collaboration with The Australian and New Zealand School of Government, on Thursday 2nd July.
To register, please click here