7 mins

Can Government be more effective as the ‘first follower’?

By Steve Cook

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Bricks and cement. We have plenty of the former but we need a great deal more of the latter, within and particularly between organisations and sectors.

I think this wonderful piece perfectly encapsulates where we are and what we need for the future but we have to focus much more at a practical, foundational level on the cement that binds us together.

By Matthew Taylor and Anthony Painter

Many people are despairing of our government.

In the UK at least, we have found ourselves in a chain of irresponsibility. Government behaves inconsistently and then points the finger at random groups when it is under pressure. (Currently it’s students.)

Encouraged by the media, we’ve all joined in the finger pointing. We criticise each other, trying to spot the free-riders, the irresponsible, those who have it easy when the rest of us don’t. We resort to caricature and sometimes seek to excuse our own inaction.

Something has to break the cycle or more anger and fatalism await. How do we create a virtuous circle of trust?

The answer is to look to ourselves and each other. When it comes to the changes we need, it’s time to stop pinning all our hopes on government solving the problem. Instead of looking to government as the prime mover, we should see it as providing the final piece of the jigsaw in a process of change started by citizens: ‘first follower’ rather than erratic leader.

Who’s in the lead? We could be

Government as enabler

We’ve been struck in recent months by a number of countries that, on infections and deaths at least, seem to have been better able to limit harm. In each, individuals, civil society and government at different levels have been more or less fully engaged – often with government in the passenger rather than driving seat.

In Taiwan, the Government sought to harness the creative energy of the digital and design sectors and supported creative solutions which reinforced collective commitment. Citizens were invited to submit ideas to improve response and communications systems. Inventories of essential supplies such as toilet roll and masks were managed and communicated online for reassurance.

In Germany, there was strong co-ordination between all levels of Government and consistent communication. This has been exemplified by Angela Merkel’s combination of honesty about the scale of the risks and confidence that citizens will do the right thing.

In New Zealand, the Prime Minister artfully cultivated a sense of a ‘family’ responding to threat together. Citizens and Government in these cases mutually enabled one another with clarity, consistency, trust and solidarity.

South Korea persuaded people to sacrifice data privacy in return for open transparency in how that data would be collected and used. And across East Asian countries, people generally wore masks from the off, a signature of deeper solidarity and sophisticated test and trace systems were rapidly put in place with the lessons from the SARS public health emergency already having been learned.

Too often we have looked to Government to provide all the answers. In this, our own Government has failed, both spectacularly and predictably. The spectacular failure was in its knee-jerk short termism, torn between public health, libertarianism and economic harm, and absence of measured consistency. It failed to properly evaluate risks and harm such as between keeping schools open and opening up wider physical contact settings as well as failing to properly understand the inter-relatedness of different risks. Some of this was exacerbated by institutional silos within Government.

The predictable failure was the absence of wider governance capacity to deliver on ministerial promises or meet citizen expectations whilst failing to appreciate virtuous mutual dependencies such as between health and economic well-being that some countries have unlocked.

Six months ago, the RSA responded to crisis by launching the Bridges to the Future programme of essays, reports, events, podcasts and Fellow activities. This pivot helped us develop powerful insights and frameworks, as well as engaging existing Fellows and attracting new ones. Our aim was to open up the conversation to wide variety of perspectives to help us as citizens, as practitioners, as policy-makers to seek to understand and navigate the present, as well as begin to imagine a better future.

We wanted to contribute alongside the contribution of many, many other organisations to society, collectively, continuing to work through and beyond Covid-19. At a time when despair, pessimism, finger-pointing and anger may all be justified responses, it is vital to offer more constructive responses….

Read the full RSA article by Matthew Taylor and Anthony Painter here

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