Jane Aslanidis, Senior Manager at the Centre for Public Impact, discusses the urgent need to reshape the economy to put people first
We live in a divided society with an ever-widening power gap. The inequality in our communities — exposed by the revolts of Brexit and Trumpism, and furthered this year by COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter — is an open and raw wound. What’s clear from 2020 is that the old ways of working no longer work. Ironically, the past three decades have been dominated by a rigid commitment to “what works,” with KPIs and hierarchy determining action in both the public and private sectors. With governments around the world cautiously turning their attention back to rebuilding a post-pandemic economy, there is a real opportunity now to shift that focus from “what works” to “what works for everyone.”
That opportunity was squandered in the years following the 2008 recession, which saw a return to business as usual. The contract between citizens and government to protect the best interest of the people was broken, and indeed never repaired. Once again, the people who are most affected by the economic breakdown we are seeing now — low-income workers on furlough and essential workers, many of whom come from historically marginalised groups — are likely to be excluded from conversations on how best to rebuild it.
Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. We cannot return to a “business as usual” that doesn’t consider the diverse perspectives of the people most affected by volatility, lest we face another public uprising in ten years’ time. We have the opportunity to do better — and many governments around the world already are.
Use history to provide perspective
Separation from loved ones, financial insecurity, border issues, emotional labour and an undercurrent of anxiety is creating a cocktail of fear that we haven’t seen on such a global scale since the wars of the past century. Unsurprisingly then, a surge in wartime-inspired rhetoric is resonating today — with the Queen’s coronavirus broadcast and the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden’s address to the nation being likened to speeches made during World War II. Even the Hamilton musical’s backdrop of the American War of Independence is inspiring the premise that there’s a strong need to change.
What we have learnt from rebuilding post-war is the importance of local engagement, job creation and laying the foundations for economic growth together with social, cultural and political stability. Rebuilding post-COVID will require a similar principle of making decisions by ‘thinking systemically, acting locally’: where our actions should be informed by an awareness of the system but focused on encouraging local ownership.
Be ready to adapt, cut through red tape and deliver at pace
Rebuilding the world post-WW2 accelerated change. Fast forward to the past decade and the old ways of working resulted in stagnant government innovation agendas, struggling to create real change and improve productivity in the economy.
The need for quick responses to COVID-19 paved the path for an innovation culture of urgent adaptation and decisively breaking down old institutional barriers. The Centre for Public Impact together with the OECD’s Observatory for Public Sector Innovation are showcasing COVID-19 responses from all levels of government worldwide given both the political support and resources to innovate in weeks, not years. Facilitated by technology and social media, governments are adapting to what people are crying out for in this recovery.
Be visible and cultivate power among those directly affected
Nevertheless, governments are currently suffering from twin challenges in the economy — they are not bringing the effective results people expect, and they are suffering from a legitimacy crisis. Communities feel left behind, frustrated and disconnected. What is needed is a government that not only actively listens to local communities, indigenous peoples and most importantly frontline workers, but includes them in its decision-making processes.
At the Centre for Public Impact, we believe a starting point is with incorporating shared power principles into decision making. Putting those impacted front and centre. Far-reaching outreach to otherwise easily overlooked parts of our society and economy, well beyond the big end of town, is so important. By doing so, we’ve seen that outcomes can be improved, but perhaps most importantly people feel empowered and engaged too.
We have a small and revolutionary window of opportunity. We can reshape the economy. Now is the time to change. The right change is not elite-driven nor can we rely on Artificial Intelligence algorithms to shortcut the work for us. Rather, an economy where people most affected by a policy decision, are sitting at the decision-making table with government, putting it in practice together.