The energetic society

Sometimes we need to ask simpler questions. “What is the problem we’re trying to solve?

I like Maarten Hajer’s take [pdf]. We’re part of an energetic society. The world’s spinning fast. Our politicians and legislators can’t keep up. For government it’s time for new governance philosophy.

Examples: Unworkable and meaningless internet privacy laws. Unworkable and close to meaningless proposals for media regulation. A legitimacy gap, an inability to learn and policy implementation that leaves society behind. Or rather, out in front.

At the heart of the matter is the view from government of society as a static object; problems are caused by society therefore this (passive) society requires governance.

Societies are far from passive. Contemporary society is an energetic society. We’ve got ADHD. And the net result is that we have not only given up on our political institutions, we are bored of them. Totally. The institutional actors and the architecture of the state simply cannot keep up, and we are not willing to slow down. Citizens are articulate. And can articulate at increasing speed.

So, and I mean this in as technologically non-deterministic terms as possible, this is about how the flow of information is changing the relationship between the government and the public. For good.

Three deficits of state are proposed.

A legitimacy deficit
The government want to take action, but the citizens don’t have the information. The government fails to bring the citizens along with them. See the current energy debate in the UK for an example of this.

A learning deficit
Strong government orientation means there is little room for new learning within the government. In Ireland think of the cognitive dissonance of (relatively) moderate Fine Gael TDs caught in the abortion debate cross hairs. Society has moved forward, and through decentralised communication, a collective lightbulb has gone off. The politicians meanwhile are stuck looking at old dog-eared election manifestoes, wondering why they haven’t been kept in the loop. The old linear policy cycle of issue, solution proposal, definition, implementation has broken down and our politicians can’t cope.

An implementation deficit
Finally, in a society of articulate citizens, it is increasingly difficult to force policy implementation.

The implications of these deficits have profound effects on those who would change government policy. There is an AC/DC misalignment between those who would be heard, and those who don’t know even how to listen.

So Hajer poses the question: can the government tap into the energy of the energetic state? Government has a choice. It can attempt to get the energetic society on side, or it can oppose it, either purposefully – think the UK internet privacy bill – or by ignoring the tumult all around it and carrying on with business as usual.

Perhaps the more interesting choice lies with those who seek to change society and believe that that change lies on a path which winds through the institutions of government. For this group of lobbyists, unions, NGOs and CSOs, addressing these deficits must form part of any change strategies.

Their job isn’t to proscribe the best course of action to an energetic society, but rather to capture its energy.

As a dynamo borrows the kinetic power of a wheel and lights the path ahead, there is a role for CSOs to focus the force of the energetic society. The danger is that this focusing retards, slows and tries to match the pace of government. But get it right, and the benefits are clear.

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