Public policy in the XXI century, during and after the pandemic
The 21st century began with a weakened State and a pandemic that accentuated one of the most disturbing paradoxes that joins this growing fragility: the states’ role is increasingly necessary. The crisis caused by this global threat revalued the need for those who organize our lives to know and to have the keys to face any risk of this magnitude. Yet, at the same time, it confirms, over and over again, that the State alone cannot provide solutions to the public or common good. It doesn't have the power nor the tools. Specifically, it no longer has the confidence of those it drives.
This situation, together with some specifications on this century -which I will mention below-, show the need for a change in the way of understanding and developing public policies.
Diversity and the end of the single discourse. Society is empowered, and with it comes its diversity. It is the protagonist, yet it is not homogeneous, which makes representation very difficult. Technology also amplifies differences. It allows the diverse to come together and therefore their power to increase, even across borders, making it more complex for the State to articulate the good of all. A more heterogeneous civil society that challenges the common agreements of today's democracies.
The power dispersion within other actors than the State. Private sectors and organizations of various kinds with more weight and resources than many states, and/or with more capacity to influence citizens, to get in touch with them, and even to achieve loyalty and conduct from them, challenging the classic channels of citizen participation.
The crisis of politics as a profession and a vocation of those who lead the good of the entire community. The citizen no longer trusts politicians or their intentions, they are perceived as a breed that plays on behalf of its own interests. New belongings and new collectives seem to offer better solutions than classic politics.
The meaning and power that technology takes as a medium, with its ability to provide new solutions for everything that means ordering, articulating, linking, participating, bringing together. As a power resource it is the most important one, because it is also that which allows entry, presence, use and control of new spaces, especially the cyberspace, a common and central place in this century.
Each of them, or all of them together, generate a scenario that forces politics to rethink the management ways. It is no longer a question of winning an election and imposing a mode. Driving a shared livelihood is a different challenge, one that requires different skills and tools: public policy requires rethinking. A more open and less absolute State is needed, one aware of its limitation yet also of its responsibility. I will point out some ideas to contribute along this thought.
In the policy design, it is necessary to open the game by letting new actors in. Firstly, to those who are already working on specific policy sectors (officials and even predecessors), but also to think tanks and/or universities. The academy can contribute by diagnosing, studying what has been done and parameterizing and then evaluating results. In turn, if the issue in treatment is strategic, it will be necessary to call on the political minorities that represent different values as well. The different regards on the same matter. Decisions will not always have the purity of what was originally intended, but even so they can be sustainable because those who may become the future government have participated and committed themselves to the design.
It is also necessary to incorporate technology. It provides tools that creatively allow new ways of linking, participating, relating and providing services. The private sector can contribute in this regard. Additionally, during the pandemic it has shown signs that it can also commit to facing together with the public sector some of the communities’ needs.
In decision-making, the tools must follow the same direction. If politics should lead, it needs to convene with the rest of the actors related to the policy decisions that need to be taken. Whether because they will be affected, favored or implicated by them. Perhaps because they have something to contribute. Nevertheless, the State can no longer make these decisions alone, if it intends to sustain them over time and achieve effectiveness.
In terms of implementation, the pandemic is very enlightening in the sense that it shows which actors have a direct saying in the territory. Municipalities and the third sector are central to the implementation of certain policies. Many times, even so the private sector. If conducted locally, with national endorsements or incentives they could be, for instance, a key sector when defining local training for a specific job demand.
Finally, for the entire process -design, decision and implementation-, the pandemic crisis has brought on three tools that show some possible paths for a new management:
First, taking the decisions to the local level, in order to generate more closeness and involvement of both actors and citizens. Plus, it helps rebuild trust.
Second, being creative in the ways of citizen participation. The impossibility of representing the rich diversity forces to think new strategies. The example of judgments by jury within the Justice, in which participation is sort out through a lottery, may be worth for public policy studying. The giveaway ensures that participation is random, genuine and more responsible.
And third but no less important, we must make efforts to professionalize the State. It is no longer "more" or "less" of a State: it is a different State. One that has its officials aware of its current limitation, of the need for coordination, and of their responsibility to safeguard the public good. Whoever controls and audits these non-public sectors -that is, without political responsibility but with a social, sectorial or private one- must be State professionals and not officials who arrive at the head of these policies by power arrangements.
In short, articulation is the noun that should characterize public policy in the XXI century. And it can only be embodied by leaderships, whether political and sectorial, of a different type than the traditional one. Leaderships that are not afraid to empower others to improve the collective result, ones that know what it is to lead with others and for all.
Lourdes Puente is a political scientist (UCA), Master and PhD candidate in International Relations. Director of the School of Politics and Government (UCA). Teacher at the Catholic University of Argentina and the Austral University. President of the New Political Action Network. Vice President of the Río de la Plata University Foundation. Member of the Advisory Commission of the Ibero-American Institute of Education and Productivity (IIEyP) in Argentina.