A time for humble governments

Essay by Juha Leppänen: “Let’s face it. During the last decade, liberal democracies have not been especially successful in steering societies through our urgent, collective problems. This is reflected in the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer Spring Update: A World in Trauma: Democratic governments are less trusted in general by their own citizens. While some governments have fared better than others, the trend is clear…

Humility entails both a willingness to listen to different opinions, and a capacity to review one’s own actions in light of new insights. True humility does not need to be deferential. But embracing humility legitimises leadership by cultivating stronger relationships and greater trust among other political and societal stakeholders — particularly with those with different perspectives. In doing so, it can facilitate long-term action and ensure policies are much more resilient in the face of uncertainty.

There are several core steps to establishing humble governance:

  • Some common ground is better than none, so strike a thin consensus with the opposition around a broad framework goal. For example, consider carbon neutrality targets. To begin with, forging consensus does not require locking down on the details of how and what. Take emissions in agriculture. In this case all that is needed is general agreement that significant cuts in CO2 emissions in this sector are necessary in order to hit our national net zero goal. While this can be harder in extremely polarised environments, a thin consensus of some sort usually can be built on any problem that is already widely recognised — no matter how small. This is even the case in political environments dominated by populist leaders.
  • Devolve problem-solving systemically. First, set aside hammering out blueprints and focus on issuing a broad launch plan, backed by a robust process for governmental decision-making. Look for intelligent incentives to prompt collaboration. In the carbon neutrality example, this would begin by identifying where the most critical potential tensions or jurisdictional disputes lie. Since local stakeholders tend to want to resolve tensions locally, give them a clear role in the planning. Divide up responsibility for achieving goals across sectors of the economy, identify key stakeholders needed at the table in each sector, and create a procedure for reviewing progress. Collaboration can be incentivised by offering those who participate the ability, say, to influence future regulations, or by penalising those who refuse to take part.
  • Revise framework goals through robust feedback mechanisms. A truly humble government’s steering documents should be seen as living documents, rather than definitive blueprints. There should be regular consultation with stakeholders on progress, and elected representatives should review the progress on the original problem statement and how success is defined. Where needed, the government in power can use this process to decide whether to reopen discussions with the opposition about how to revise the current goals…(More)”.