It doesn’t have to be like this.
Two surprising things happened on Sunday. First, Boris Johnson changed the government message. Then the post I wrote in response went viral (it has now been read over half a million times). The diagnosis, which was rooted in the work we’ve been doing at New Citizenship Project since 2014, clearly resonated. So let me see if I can keep being useful…
On Sunday, I made the case that Johnson was shifting from the Subject story, in which the government had aimed to position itself as the rescuing hero, to the Consumer story, where the role of government is to step back and let us make the choices.
This story seems attractive, but has dark consequences. It seems to give us power, but in reality pushes responsibility onto us without giving the information and resources that need to come with it.
What we need to build instead is the Citizen story, where the role of government is neither all nor nothing, but in between: to equip and enable us, and to partner with us; to share as much information and power as possible, so that we can work together with government and with one another to create a new normal.
There are three shifts government will need to make in order to lead in this way. The thing about the Citizen story, though, is that it’s not just about government. It’s about all of us stepping into the power we already have.
Shift 1: From Serving To Learning
On Sunday, Johnson moved from commanding us (“Stay Home”) to serving us. He talks of giving us freedom. Ours is now to choose and be self-reliant, not obey and be dependent.
The problem, as I’ve argued on Radio 4 and elsewhere (including the video below), is that this framing of what we want and need is deeply diminishing of human nature. It assumes that we are all narrow individuals, on the lookout for what’s in our direct self interest. But we’re not. We never were, but if it was ever in doubt, we’ve blown it out of the water over the last two months. We care about each other deeply. We want to work together. We want to be useful.
If you start from there, you don’t try to serve people-as-Consumers, you learn with people-as-Citizens.
You start with truth. There is not a single right answer to this challenge, and there is certainly no group of people that can retreat into a bunker, design the perfect plan, and then provide it for us. But nor can we act with no co-ordination, no collaboration, no conscious learning.
Our collective task now is to learn how to live with coronavirus for a significant period of time; as long as it takes to find a vaccine, and then as long as it takes for that to be in full effect, which will raise its own challenges. We don’t know how to do that. No one does.
What would a learning government do? It would actively look to other countries, drawing on the lessons of their experience and sharing them openly with us. It would be honest about what’s happening, making information accessible and intelligible, not grandstand when there is good news and distract us from bad. Where necessary, it would experiment and be explicit about that experiment, not disappear into the bunker.
For our part, we would demand this of government: not perfect, shiny solutions, but the opportunity to play a meaningful part in the learning without sacrificing safety on the altar of freedom. That’s what being “all in it together” really means.
Shift 2: From Central To Local
The outstanding example of the Citizen story in action to date is the spontaneous explosion of grassroots Mutual Aid groups, which councils across the country then came in behind to support, structure and safeguard (Community Response Kirklees is a particularly impressive example, and a place we at NCP know and love).
This becomes even more impressive when placed in contrast with the centrally commissioned NHS Volunteer Responder scheme, which offered slickly defined, centrally designed roles… and is barely up and running even now. As of 20th April, only 20,000 missions had been fulfilled. That is not for lack of willing: 750,000 people signed up when 250,000 were expected, a flood that meant registrations had to be closed.
The same instinct to centralise is now in play on the challenge of testing, tracking and tracing. Our government has insisted on only central labs carrying out tests, commissioned a central tracing app and central call centre, and planned to recruit central staff. After Donna Hall, formerly Chief Executive of Wigan Council and now Chair of the New Local Government Network, made a persuasive case for the irresponsibility of this, not to mention the expense, some small powers have started to shift to the local level. But this is not yet anywhere near enough, and should not have taken so long: we have known for over a month that this is how Germany developed its testing capacity, to the point where it was carrying out well over 100,000 tests per day by the beginning of April. By contrast, on Sunday morning, at the very moment Johnson was shifting the focus, newspapers were reporting government’s failure to hit its target of 100,000 tests per day for the seventh day in a row, and the shipping of tests to the United States for analysis.
Through the lens of the Consumer story, the idea that councils might play a critical role does not compute. Councils become more like branches of a retailer to central government’s head office, service providing outlets for whom the highest aspiration is to provide those services more efficiently and, frankly, cock up less often.
In the Citizen story, though, councils are vital. They are citizen enablers, not service providers. When power and resources are pushed down to the local level, they are much closer to us. Whitehall cannot make the places where we live better. We can. We cannot know our ministers, or even our MPs. We can know our councillors; we can be councillors. One measure of the success of the Citizen story would be a radically increased number of candidates at next year’s local elections.
Shift 3: From “Us and Them” To “A Larger Us”
(Language borrowed from the Collective Psychology Project)
For all my anger on Sunday, I don’t think Johnson and his team are malevolent; rather, I think they simply cannot see the way things could be. They see themselves as “Us” and the people as “Them”. Politicians are there to command in the Subject story, to serve in the Consumer story; but they are always separate from the people.
The Citizen story rejects this separation. We are all of us citizens, and some of us for various amounts of time take on the tasks of politics. It is a spectrum, not a binary distinction.
Some points in the middle already exist: councillors and jurors, for example. A Citizen government would build on these. The Scottish government has created one small but powerful example, a dialogue platform to enable citizens to contribute and debate ideas as to how lockdown could be safely lifted, and what should be prioritised (the contrast to the Johnson product launch on Sunday is stark). If you wanted to up the ambition, the Royal Society of Arts has a comprehensive proposal for a Citizens Convention to inform the shaping of the next phase of our lives. The underlying approach of deliberative democracy, which sees citizens randomly selected on a basis much like jury service to deliberate and make recommendations to government on particular issues, was gaining momentum around the world before Covid19; its time has come, in my view.
But beyond these actions on the part of government, the implication of the spectrum is that this is also something we can just do; and lots of citizens are starting to, bringing together communities of experience to take on the tasks of politics. Some are scientists: the creation of the Independent SAGE to shadow government’s scientific advisory group, streaming all their meetings live online and publishing all papers, has made serious waves. Others are technologists: a community of thousands has formed around the Coronavirus Tech Handbook, which is described on the front page of what is essentially an open, edit-able document as “a crowdsourced library of tools, services and resources relating to Covid-19 response.” Others still are researchers and “citizen scientists”: the Young Foundation’s Covid & Me Diaries project has worked with diarists all over the UK to record their experiences, and crowdsourced from them a set of criteria for exiting lockdown that is arguably more coherent than what is now in place.
Seen through this lens, Mutual Aid groups could potentially be just the beginning of a whole new relationship between citizen and state, or perhaps the reclamation of a very old one: an idea that government is a verb, something we do together; not a noun, an institution that stands apart. These starting points could grow into new structures and processes that would see us working together to govern ourselves, and would make government as we know it obsolete unless they were to invite us in. If this sounds far-fetched, it is exactly what has happened in Taiwan over the last decade, where a citizen movement called Gov Zero set up what was in effect a participatory shadow government, and has since been fused into the halls of power. It is not a coincidence that Taiwan is arguably responding better than any other nation to the challenge of Covid19.
A time to act
In A Paradise Built In Hell, her 2009 book about human response to disasters through history, the American philosopher and activist Rebecca Solnit describes how communities invariably come together, developing new ways not just to survive but to thrive, healing old wounds, and finding joy in the process; but also how they often find that the authorities supposed to protect and serve do them more harm than good. Driven by fear and lack of understanding, they crush what is emerging before it can take hold. She articulates the root cause of this phenomenon, which disaster scholars call “elite panic”:
“The elite often believe that if they themselves are not in control, the situation is out of control.”
So many of us in this time have already done so much, but far from seeing this as a burden we cannot wait to set down, we have taken joy and pride in doing so. There is so much more I could write about by way of evidence: I have not even touched on the role of businesses and charities, local and national, and the way many of them have shifted into entirely new ways of working that invite us to be part of their purpose, not just consume their services.
Our government has not done as much as it could have to help, and looks set to do less, but I think Solnit is right. I think they are scared, and out of control. Their discomfort with this situation is ironic, given that this group came to power with the slogan “Take back control”: it seems they meant “give us control”, rather than intending for us actually to get involved.
But we are in control, I believe, and are starting to build the institutions, structures and processes that could lead to a very different future.
The next step would be much easier if Johnson and his team were to join us in this story and support us. I for one would welcome them with open arms.
But we can do it even if they do not. We can build it locally, reinventing councils and regional power structures, many of which are now radically open. We can build it through the businesses we work for, and the professional communities we’re part of.
We don’t have to join our government in the Consumer story. There is a bigger choice we are all free to make, whether Johnson wants us to or not.
If you find this piece useful, please share it and/or give it a clap — those help it spread too, and you can clap up to 50 times.
For more on the research and thinking that underpins this piece, see Subject, Consumer, or Citizen: Three Post-Covid Futures.
If you want to check out some of the people and organisations who are doing Citizen work already (my description, not theirs) and have inspired me and the New Citizenship Project along the way, there are too many to list, but here is a non-exhaustive, omissions-soon-to-be-regretted A-Z to start you off:
Atlas of the Future: a 21st century magazine, touring the future and bringing back ideas to inspire the present
Bureau Local: a collective of local news journalists, working together to build the impact of local stories and show how local media might thrive
Rowan Conway: design thinker, entrepreneur, and the woman behind much of the best of what has come out of Mariana Mazzucato and Matthew Taylor
Democratic Society: pioneers of the way democracy should be done
Alex Evans: mastermind of the Collective Psychology Project, referenced above
Firetail: consultancy working to build the impact of social progress organisations of all shapes and size
Ed Gillespie: the energy source of the UK sustainability movement
Rob Hopkins: champion of imagination, founder of Transition movement
Involve: campaigners for and deliverers of deliberative democracy
Jericho Chambers: genuinely radical consultancy right at the heart of the existing system
Imandeep Kaur: future president of the world, or at least of Birmingham
Adam Lent: Director of New Local Government Network, champion of community power
Joe Mitchell: British democracy’s most likely saviour
Newspeak House: home of the Coronavirus Tech Handbook (mentioned above) and much, much else besides
Open Democracy: journalism as it should be
Participatory City: taking one neighbourhood in London and showing what the future could look like
(I give up, can’t find a Q!)
Royal Society of Arts: thinktank with deep heritage, wide network, and quality outputs
Ella Saltmarshe: activist and storyteller extraordinaire
Transition Network: a movement of communities coming together to reimagine and rebuild the world, without waiting for government to help
Julia Unwin: civil society leader, thinker, and pioneer
Volans: consultancy designing the future of capitalism, while questioning whether there should be one
Rich Wilson: serial democracy pioneer
Xavier Damman (cheating but it’s an X)
Young Foundation: community-driven thinktank set up in memory of Michael Young, that actually does things
00 (Zero Zero): design collective behind radical ideas of all shapes and sizes, from wikihouses to social enterprise networks