Guinea pigs or co-workers

In Musings

Previously I mused about how difficult it could be to decide what to do when all we know is that current options are unhelpful. We know that what happens now is bad, we can make some rather hand wavey guesses about where we want to end up, we feel we need multiple steps to get there, and we just don't know how to start. This is worrying. If one of government's tasks is to present citizens with a reasonably stable future, this level of unknown is is so scary that most people will simply stick to what they know, despite the consequences. A government cannot simply treat the populace like guinea pigs.

As it happens, knowing what to do next is not as difficult as it seems. We have a queue of things to do, all clamouring for attention: groups will argue for replacing industrial agriculture with known alternatives; addressing precarity through universal income as a cheaper and more humane tool than Universal Credit; improving future prospects by changing the goals of the education system; reducing the impact of the political elite through citizens' assemblies; and so on. Pick any suggestion from the list and the problems begin. It will be dismissed with a range of standard objections: what we have now works just fine; people's livelihood is in danger; there will be freeloaders; it's too expensive; and (variations on) it spoils the view.

How do you get round these problems? A healthy, open, informed, discussion can help. And a government in thrall to business lobbying will certainly hinder. Having sufficient power to force a change through might work. Though the public could turn nasty. The real challenge though is that we are trying to solve problems that generally don't have a single perfect solution. The government is asking many people to change how they think about something and to change what they do. They may be asking institutions to change their approach, and possibly their structure. There will be side effects.

I'm now staring into the abyss of wicked problems; problems that have no solution. Well, actually, I'm not going there. There might be reasonable approaches to analysis and design that can get us part of the way, but, ultimately, the only thing to to do is to try something out.

The downside of try it and see is that there may be no subset of the system that can work as an example - it must be all or nothing.

Activating a policy where there is perhaps slightly less than 50% approval has two possible outcomes. On the one hand, if the populace discover that the policy isn't so bad after all, and may even be good, the approval might go above 50% and "leadership" has happened. Alternatively, the populace discovers that is at least as bad as expected, approval goes down and "incompetence" is to blame.

If incompetence is committed, there is no alternative but to reverse out of the situation as quickly as possible.

The alternative to treating the public as reactive guinea pigs might be to involve people more actively. And there's more than one way to do that. How about some decentralisation? How about discussion groups (aka citizens' assemblies)? How about stakeholder involvement in relevant organisations? How about open reporting of situations as they develop? Come to that, how about open reporting (and discussion) of goals to be achieved and the thinking behind policy?

It might be as well to introduce new policies in some order that gives people a chance to get used to being involved. And to demonstrate that the government can, for once, be trusted.

Working with people in this way means they become co-workers in the development of the new society and its institutions, and trial and error can be a natural part of the journey.