How Do We Govern in a Post-Fact World?
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.
The data, turning on the news, and even our own experience tells us that there is intense political disagreement right now. Not just over the right thing to do but even on basic facts. 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 you, the leaders who make it work. What might the next 10-20 years look like for you? There are three scenarios to choose from and prepare for. Which one do you find most convincing?
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 lack of cultural adaptations to manage them, the presence pf particular political personalities, and the events of recent decades leading to an unusually low level of citizen faith in public institutions. After all, 75% of American adults started regularly using the internet as recently as 2009. Only 35% of Americans were using smartphones in 2011 compared to 77% today. We’re literally living in a brand-new world, but lengthening lifespans means the average political leader is older than they used to be, giving them less of a chance to adapt to so much change. The President is 72, the average age of a Congressperson is 58, and the average age of a Senator is 62—all of which makes this Congress the oldest in U.S. history.
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, government leaders simply need to be patient and minimize the damage. We should also focus on growing future public sector leaders so they can be ready to bring their fresh perspective, and their familiarity with modern technology, to today’s challenges.
Scenario 2: It StaysThe Same
A less optimistic scenario is that this is the new normal, meaning that this level of distrust and the proliferation of multiple versions of reality. It’s happened before, given that people had opinions about politics and government long before there was anything approaching our modern ideas of journalism or objectivity.
If that happens, leaders will need to change how they think about their roles, how they direct their teams, 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 asa “mainstream source.” Much of what government does will still only be of interest to a few people, but it will be hard to know in advance when a false idea or narrative will catch on. 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, which will be a key part of reducing opposition to policies or change so we can do our jobs. 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 anymore because many citizens will start off believing the worst. Governments will need to prove over and over again that they aren’t up to anything by sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly, which will build trust.
Government leaders 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 celebrity or being on social media, but refusing to take advantage of it is short-sighted. The reality is that today’s citizens trust people and organizations you may not, and which weren’t considered trustworthyuntil the Information Age. We deal with the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be. Citizens can even be enlisted to build credibility and support for a policy, either serving in a formal advisory capacity or even being given an advisory “vote” on major decisions. People trust their fellow citizens in ways they don’t trust civil servants, unfortunately, even though we’re their neighbors.
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, it would be urgent to do even more so government can still function and its leaders can still be effective. 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, which exists to address these challenges. It may be necessary to allow much more differences in policy between different areas so that citizens who violently disagree can live in peace. Going even farther than citizens as advisors, 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. A compromise made by citizens will be easier to live with than one reached by unelected experts, even though that is the job we civil servants were hired to do.
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. Being complacent or despairing about the worst possible future will guarantee that future.The best way to avoid that fate is to take steps to address today’s problems and their root causes. We can adapt government to today’s reality and maintain our fellow citizens’ trust, not just for ourselves, but so we can prepare future generations who have only known this world for public service.Who else to do this hard work than those public sector leaders who are dedicated to making government work today, tomorrow, and in all futures?