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What do policy statements say about our society?

An excerpt from Stephen Muers’s contribution to our Radical Visions of Future Government collection.

Stephen Muers examines the interplay between advances in technology, structural economic change, and social rupture. His piece argues that governments could improve policy implementation by switching to more emotive and symbolic communication, and by embracing techniques of storytelling, anthropology and ethnography, which demonstrate a deeper understanding of human behaviour. In an age of concern about the impact of technology, Muers’ essay, How Donald Trump Shows us the Future suggests that new government roles must become more human.

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How Donald Trump shows us the Future illustration by Whatever Design

Love him or loathe him, it’s hard to argue that Donald Trump doesn’t have a distinctive style of political leadership. Compared to other leaders, he seems remarkably uninterested in policy detail – or, indeed, policy at all. He is in constant, direct dialogue with the public and the media, mainly through Twitter, providing a stream of comment on issues normally have been seen as well outside the realm of politics. He has shifted the tone of public debate and changed the boundaries of what politicians can say; many would argue he has done profound political damage as a result. But there is a strong case that his approach points the way to a different type of leadership, well attuned to the challenges of governing in the twenty-first century.

There is a long tradition of scepticism about whether policy makers at the centre of government can expect their decisions to ever be delivered. The front-line workers in any public service system actually determine what happens day to day. A new criminal offence only has an impact if police officers on the beat decide to arrest people for it. A new curriculum will only change what pupils learn if teachers respect it sufficiently to teach it effectively. Driving through any policy change against the cultural grain and motivation of those expected to deliver it is extremely difficult.

There is also good reason to believe this challenge is getting harder. If front-line workers and the citizens with whom they interact have rapid real-time data on what is going on, they will respond to it. As data processing and analysis becomes more sophisticated, we should expect more of the service quality and outcomes that citizens care about to be driven from the front line.

"There is strong evidence that the public already recognises their leaders have little to do with the services they experience."

Research shows voters neither reward past good performance in delivering outcomes nor the promise of future policies they like. A classic example comes from the 1983 General Election in the UK: based on the issues voters said were most important and the party they said had the best policies on them, you would have expected a landslide victory for the Labour Party. Instead, Thatcher’s Conservative government achieved the most decisive election victory in nearly forty years.

It is therefore futile for national political leaders to promise, or attempt to deliver, detailed policy propositions. Front-line responses to data will simply move too fast and overwhelm instructions from the centre, and they won’t be rewarded by voters for either trying or succeeding. So if this is the future, what role should those leaders play?

Governments can affect norms and narratives, and in fact do so whether they like it or not, while their ability to deliver services and outcomes is much weaker than has often been assumed.

"Policy statements are not descriptions of what a government will do – they are tools for sending symbolic messages about what matters and what a society should value."

And so we return to Donald Trump. He clearly uses policy statements in this way, and voters understand that he does so. His best known electoral promise was his commitment to build a wall on the Mexican border and have the Mexican government pay for it – yet on the day of his inauguration, an opinion poll showed only 14% of the population believed he would actually do it. The wall was a symbol of his approach to immigration and to other countries, not a deliverable promise. This approach has some traction and could be used, intentionally, by different leaders in different government systems, and with completely different goals and values.

To the person on the street, things might not feel so different: their experience and understanding of government is already one of symbolic promises and a gap to delivery. There is perhaps the potential for a more honest relationship between government and the governed. If politicians stop claiming they are going to deliver precise reform plans, instead talking openly about values and symbols, it opens up a different set of debates. Do we agree or disagree with the values that someone espouses? Are they the national symbols we want, and what do they say about our society?

You can follow Stephen Muers on twitter @stephenmuers

Explore a selection of the other contributions as part of our Visions of Government 2030 feature.

Author

Stephen Muers

Stephen Muers works in senior policy and strategy roles in government and the third sector.