Marshall Memorial Fellowship Reflections: Amy Lee
At every point in the Marshall Memorial Fellowship, we were privileged to meet with key leaders, either elected to high office or who earned senior decision-making roles. It was comforting, at first, to realize the extraordinary level of competence they had acquired while tackling issues as complex and fraught as Brexit, and as massive as combating climate change. Particularly the rising generation of leaders are taking advantage of the most modern thinking about evidence-based policymaking, good governance, and complex systems.
But this is also what worries me: that precisely because of this rigorous training and the complex demands of their institutions, many of these leaders—I am afraid we have to call them technocrats— cannot speak to regular people about them. What can you say when you have to explain NATO or the EU’s decision-making process, or the hurdle of creating process and infrastructure for the massive reforms underway in Ukraine? Though perfectly appropriate for a consensus-based union like the EU or a member state trying to reform an immense bureaucracy, this deliberative process often produces intangible, invisible results that citizens do not even recognize. The tradeoffs to such a system which include, speed, simplicity, and satisfaction of specific desires— are immediately apparent to the public. All of this is known and accepted by the elites whom we were meeting with. However, it does not seem that these tradeoffs are widely accepted amongst regular citizens, and it appears that we are seeing the results of this discontent.
I am not arguing that competence is not very much to be valued within government (or any sphere). But a structure governed solely by a rational head unheeded by a restless body is unsustainable. The two have to be reconnected. Improvement of communication was the only need which was directly acknowledged as necessary by leaders. What is really needed is for both the elites and the regular citizens to recalibrate their responsibilities for decision making.
Perhaps what is needed is less deliberation within the government and more within the people. Many have said this is impossible: that citizens do not want to take this on as a responsibility, and that they could not handle it if they did. But we are witnessing the attempt by every-day people to wrest back some feeling of control over their futures. To assume that they do not know what is best for themselves is condescending and undemocratic. As to the quality of their decision, surely the best way forward is not to take the power from them, but to educate them to be critical thinkers.
In reality, citizens are ready to engage even on complex, fraught issues— if the issues are framed in a way that resonates with them as citizens, rather than as cogs or customers. If citizens are engaged, they can be motivated to become educated enough on an issue, on the advantages and tradeoffs of various options, to make a sound decision in keeping with their values. Setting up good processes for public deliberation is a lot of work, of course, and messy. When taking this into consideration it is obvious why many policymakers might wish to avoid it, and now we are seeing what happens when countries ignore this issue.
Though laborious, widespread public deliberation that productively informs decision making is not at all impossible. Due to the parliamentary style of government, and the established standards for consensus-based decision making, the civic landscapes of Europe are considerably more conducive to integrating public decision making than the U.S. Thankfully, the approach I am arguing for is not a theoretical one—the field of deliberative democracy has grown and matured in the forty or so years since its founding. It has both research and practice to support its theories. Perhaps in times of relative unity and prosperity, public deliberation could be viewed as unnecessary to real-world governance. But looking around at Europe, and the U.S., it is clear that it is urgent now.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.