The rise of citizen-centric governments

The World Government Summit held in Dubai, in February, is a citizen-centric initiative for the public sector. Pawan Singh / The National
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Every life converges around a centre, the American poet Emily Dickinson once said. People strive towards certain goals and dreams as they go through their lives. In a world where good and bad policies are decided by complex economic models, discerning the centre of convergence for millions of lives is difficult. Public policy in most modern governments has been largely grounded in a rationalising process underpinned by aggregated data about millions of citizens. Yet even with their best effort, policymakers and public administrators alike have lacked the tools and mechanisms to dig deeper into the sentiments and the needs of ordinary citizens. And even when they managed to do so, the complexity of modern-day bureaucracies and the strong influence of interest groups on government have meant that such insights couldn't easily be translated into effective political will. This becomes especially troublesome when the disparity between government statistics and citizens’ experience grows big enough to engender a serious gap between facts and truth. And unlike Don Quixote’s observation, it is truth that can become the enemy of facts, especially when they are used to construct an abstract mathematical truth; a truth that is based on average indicators but discounts the actual experiences of individuals, families, communities and companies as they deal with social and economic changes. Such experiences are often easy to describe, but difficult to aggregate and quantify. Policymakers, therefore, misconstrue or confuse positive indicators as signs of positive sentiment, well-being and happiness among citizens.

Recent political events in the UK, the US and other supposedly strong-performing economies have shown how big the disparity is between aggregated facts (eg the economy is doing well) and isolated truth (people don't feel they are doing well). The sentiment can best be expressed borrowing from Yevgeny Zamyatin 1921 book We. The book (subsequently banned) made mockery of the newly established Soviet Union for promising its citizens what Zamyatin called "mathematical happiness". The form of happiness that is evident in data only.

Populist politicians outside government understand this and make less use of facts and more reference to anecdotal truth. But once in government, they realise that good policy cannot be based on anecdotes and in response to passions and sentiments alone. Thus, instead of lamenting the death of reason and the advent of a post-truth era, many governments have begun moving into what one might call “citizen-centric” governance. A citizen-centric government does not make all its policies on the basis of rationalistic calculations, but on citizens’ direct input and experience. But citizens-centric policy making should not be confused with stakeholder consultation. Instead, it involves observation of citizens' behaviour and immersion in it, and the running of many pilots and trials before policies and services resulting from them are finalised and introduced to the wider public.

Citizen-centric governments are gaining in popularity across the world. In the Middle East, the UAE has launched citizen-centric public-sector initiatives in the form of innovation labs; in Asia, Singapore has created an initiative called PS21 (or Public Sector 21) to spark a spirit of user-centric public services; Canada, the UK and the US are all experimenting with various instruments to tap citizens' input and experience to design both service and policy. The emergence of this new type of policy making in these countries is perhaps a result of the growing realisation that a growing policy-public chasm needs to be bridged. For example, in Canada, an initiative called InWithForward is redesigning service systems in complex areas such as mental disability and homelessness from a citizen-centric perspective. In the UK, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) now experiments with new regulations in the form of limited pilots called “regulatory sandboxes”, where businesses can test new products and services before the FCA designs the appropriate regulation for them. Policy labs are springing up everywhere, whereby governments use citizens’ experience and input to design policy in areas as diverse as education, health and justice.

The movement, whose origins can be traced to Nordic countries in the 1960s and 1970s, became most prominent in the creation of MindLab in 2007 by the Danish government. MindLab included and involved multiple ministries, piloted new public services and gave feedback to policymakers. Academia is catching up too, becoming more interested in the use of ethnographic, hermeneutical, behavioural and experimental research to help feed and support public service and policy-design activities in government. Design agencies whose experience is derived from the design of product and services in the commercial sector are beginning to take an interest in government services too.

Understanding citizens’ experience and sentiment is a business that is set to continue to grow. In the process, we will see a retreat in the influence of economists on policy, and a growing role for ethnographers, designers and psychologists in the formulation of public policy and the design of government work.