Innovating Democracy by Turning the Rubik’s Cube


Recently, I was invited to talk about innovation in public policy for a podcast launched by Pathfinder. Myself and the Founder, Miguel de Fontenay, ended up having a really fruitful discussion about innovation and the future of our democracies – particularly in Europe – and my connection to those topics, including my vision for Accidental European. In this article, I hope to lay my thoughts bare about this experience.

Fatemeh Jailani

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“Fatemeh, I think it would be great if we could organize a podcast interview about innovation in democracy!” That is what Miguel de Fontenay, my former colleague from my previous corporate life, announced to me at the beginning of a strange year rung in with an on-going pandemic, vaccination contests, and American elections sprinkled with hate tweets from “he whom we shall no longer name.” The year had begun with a spectacular attack on the US capitol that I was privy to during my trip back to California for the holidays. 

‘Happy new year to you too, Miguel’ I thought to myself, as I mulled over whether or not democracy would make it through the year, and if I should go to India, when this is all over, to take part in a Vipassana meditation retreat. 

I assure you, I was more hopeful before the holidays, when I wrote this piece about the need for democracy to reinvent itself; much like my idol Madonna, but on a mass scale. On my Christmas wish list, I requested one thing: for our democracies to learn new tricks. The tricks came, but I wasn’t sure if they were for the “good” of democracy. 

As I pondered over this some more, Miguel seemed motivated to move forward with the podcast, and however disillusioned I felt at that moment, his enthusiasm propelled me forwards. 

“Sure Miguel, sounds like a great idea.” 

Little did I know, I had just locked and loaded myself for a journey of introspection in the name of innovation and democracy. 

Everyone talks innovation, but can they walk it? 

Innovation is really important. We’ve all heard it over and over again, especially during this last year. Indeed, we are at a time of great uncertainty – both globally and within the European context. The silver lining is that it’s often in such situations where innovation thrives. 

Trust me, that revelation did not come easily to me… 

Why are times of uncertainty an enabling factor for innovation you ask?

Well, uncertainty keeps you open to ideas. 

How do I know that?

Uncertainty and I have a pretty long-standing relationship. Growing up at the intersection of east/west, developed/underdeveloped, peace/war, poverty/wealth, binary concepts like right/wrong, black/white, good/bad didn’t mean much to me. No coin flipping could ever simplify the collision between my parents’ world and that of American ‘90s society, reeling from a Cold War Rambo period that took Afghanistan as collateral damage. Born into uncertainty, I have played with it my whole life, in a world that often seeks certainty at all costs. 

Looking back, I am convinced that uncertainty, however anxiety-filled, did me a great service by keeping my mind open and my ears approachable.

It is hard to dismiss something or someone when lacking certainty. This openness kept me listening at a time when public dialogue was becoming increasingly polarised, and when progressive governments couldn’t always relate to the realities and struggles of their citizens. 

However, in this retrospection, I also realised something else about my uncertain upbringing: it forced me to confront nuance, and feel comfortable doing so. 

The reality of our democracies is that we live in a world of nuance governed by binary systems.

While we learn “critical thinking” in schools and universities, this key human development is put to a halt in adulthood as we face political and social spaces that often promote caricatures, generalities and stereotypes instead of individuality and intersectionality.

I’ve read so many articles about the importance of programming nuance into Artificial Intelligence (AI) that I can’t help but wonder if we haven’t skipped a step: programming nuance into human intelligence. 

As aforementioned though, there is a silver lining amid the chaos.

Political leaders and institutions, if savvy and agile, have an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone; by using the disconcerting emotions that arise from uncertainty to emphasise the importance of nuance.

If you want the dominoes to start falling, what you need to know is that uncertainty and nuance ignite experimentation. 

Simply put, if we want more “Eureka” moments in our democracies, then the political powers that be need to foster a mentality of experimentation while designing spaces fit for it. If not, then uncertainty’s distant cousin, anxiety, will take over. 

Policy “making” or policy “experimenting”? 

We currently have a platform – the EU – which at times, achieves remarkable things, like peace in Europe. True story. It’s far from perfect, though, and sometimes we see this in its policy making. As Bertrand Russell once said, “Too little liberty brings stagnation and too much brings chaos”. At the moment, European institutions tilt towards stagnation. 

While other fields often benefit from a focus on innovation and invention, policy seems to lag behind like a mule: overcharged and worn. That needs to change. It’s not just about encouraging innovative policies. It’s also about cultivating an environment where innovation is nourished, and thrives. I could go on all day about reasons why governments can struggle to innovate, but I think the main barrier to innovation is that innovating involves entering a continuous phase of experimentation. And that means embracing five things: 

1. Uncertainty. My favorite word it seems. To embrace innovation, you have to feel comfortable with uncertainty. We must accept lack of knowledge, doubts, risks and unanswered questions – these are not attractive propositions or feelings. Would we rather a political leader that says ‘We don’t have an answer now, but we’re working to find one’ or one that lies and misleads us, providing false hope where there is none?
2. Nuance. Our world is very complex and it is through the prism of nuance that we can understand and respond to the issues facing public policies. Employing nuance doesn’t tend to win elections, but it is essential in creating inclusive and progressive policy. Policy which considers all perspectives, and all experiences, is much less likely to lead to widespread disenfranchisement than policy which excludes, ignores, or misses people out.
3. Diversity. More perspectives are needed to prevent echo chambers. This applies to high levels of decision-making, where criticism is key to development. A table of nodding heads leads to complacency (and neck aches), while company culture suffers too if an organisation lacks introspection. Having a diverse range of experiences and perspectives helps encourage innovation: if presented with a problem, it’s unlikely the first suggested solution is going to be the most effective one. If presented with a multitude of solutions or opinions, a more well-rounded response is likely to be formed!
4. Downplaying one’s ego. Ego needs to be mitigated, and policies need to be detached from personal affiliations or political personalities, in order to bring policy back to being a force for public good.
5. Patience. Innovation does not tend to be a get rich quick scheme; good solutions which cover all bases take time to create and implement.

Guess what? In a democracy, citizens make for great collaborators  

Policymakers need to re-conceptualise how they think about citizens. This goes hand in hand with creating new, innovative policy. Too often, citizens are an afterthought, considered as recipients or the ‘target market’ of policy. Citizens are more than this, though; they’re directly involved with the election and maintenance of the government. Just as successful policy implementation relies on receptive, aware citizens, so too can policy creation benefit from their awareness and input. 

It’s one thing engaging citizens in debate and another to actually involve citizens in the policymaking process. The former merely requires the impression of listening. The latter requires action; creating spaces in which citizens can be clearly heard. 

A lesson from Franklin D. Roosevelt: Tech meets humility

Technology is, of course, a key facet of this discussion. Those in government should be utilising technology to understand and connect with citizens, particularly as they set forth policy proposals. I don’t mean the Hey-The-Government-Twitters-Now-style social media strategies or automatic reply ‘we hear your concerns’ email inboxes; I mean by using technology to help citizens understand policy, how it affects them, and how they can affect it.

History, as per usual, provides a good lesson here. FDR’s Fireside Chats are one of the best examples of a politician using new technology to access – and ease – the minds of citizens. Starting in 1933 the chats were a series of radio addresses given by Franklin D Roosevelt (US President) to the American people. FDR spoke about topics ranging from anything to New Deal measures, to the Unemployment Census, or World War II, bringing his voice into the homes of millions of citizens.1“The Last Time Democracy Almost Died”, Jill Lapore https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/02/03/the-last-time-democracy-almost-died It’s unclear whether he sat by the fire for every chat, but it’s a nice name regardless. 

The chats were immensely successful.2Between March 1933 and June 1944 FDR held thirty of them. They allowed him to quell the minds of citizens at a time when uncertainty was rife, explaining his policies clearly and assuredly, as well as creating spaces where citizens could express themselves too. This kind of transparency was much appreciated by the American people, as the intimacy of the chats made them feel as if they were actively involved in the decision-making process – or at least actively considered. 

There are a few things that the Fireside Chats reinforced: 

1. Tech is important. Utilising it innovatively, sensibly and strategically can be effective.
2. Transparency matters. Communication is a way by which to achieve transparency. Opaque policy – if it can’t be understood, can’t be accessed, or its effects cannot be seen – is bad policy.
3. Citizens can be involved. They are “the” stakeholders: they just need to be invited to the discussion and feel heard.
4. Humility is a virtue. It helps citizens to feel at ease if you level with them; it’s important for leaders to remember that politics is a service.

Today’s leaders could learn and benefit a lot from FDR. 

Policymaking needs to be dragged into the 21st century and technology should be at the centre of this push.

However, technology always comes with caveats as we have learned in recent years. While ethics should always come into play, governments also need to avoid plying people and policy target markets with internet-based information, to the point where they lose interest. Technology is a means, not an end. The end should always be about quality not quantity. FDR’s Fireside Side Chats were just that. 

The European Green Deal: An opportunity to do policy “experimenting” 

The European Green Deal (EGD) represents a wealth of opportunity for Europe’s policymakers and leaders. Billions of euros in funding, years of planning, and, hopefully, a reinvigoration for numerous industries across the continent, if done right. 

It also offers a chance for states to involve a new generation of citizens in the policy making processes. The role of the state in implementing EGD policies should be centred around driving innovation and encouraging experimentation. 

Today, companies, civil society, social actors, etc. all have a point of view to share. To ensure the continuity and relevance of public policies, it is necessary to understand how policy areas are experienced by all of these actors. Governments can then work towards policies of multitudes, using nuance and dialogue to avoid missteps, and ensuring that the EGD is an initiative that is discussed with all actors. That includes citizens!

This, in a nutshell, is how collective intelligence should operate: at the service of better, more inclusive and nuanced policy.

We don’t just need thinkers with big ideas for the future of agriculture, for example. We need small-scale farmers to tell us their concerns, soil experts to inform us of new developments, and civil servants, academics and other practitioners to share with us their insight on how such developments may affect other fields. 

In a world where we are privy to more info, more data, more technological advancements than ever before, collective intelligence has never been better placed to progress society at a rate of knots. 

The Conference on the Future of Europe initiative has offered some promising ideas regarding citizen involvement in policy development. Now, within a recently launched platform, citizens can even make their voices heard. 

While this initiative is a move in the right direction, the awareness around this initiative amongst citizens remains weak. If you asked your friends what the Conference on the Future of Europe has done, I’d wager they wouldn’t be able to name a thing; they might not know what it even is.

Initiatives such as these – which aim to involve citizens in the process and discourage disenfranchisement – need to be widely publicised at national levels, and positioned as potential avenues for change, instead of merely ‘a way to be heard’. 

What we’re doing at Accidental European? You’re reading it

At Accidental European (AE), we are committed to developing a platform which prioritises productive discussion about policy. We don’t have all the answers – no one does – but we recognise that public policy needs to use innovative methods to improve lives. 

We acknowledge the nuanced, human nature of policy. Take this article, for example; I wanted to explain what innovation in democracy could mean. To do so, I made connections with my own individual experience, choices and knowledge: my Afghan and Californian upbringing, within the premises of a 90s culture reeling from the Cold War; FDR’s inventiveness to tackle the disenfranchisement of the American population during the Great Depression; the opportunity to foster experimentation within the scope of the EGD; and the importance of emerging platforms like the Future of Europe. All this set against, of course, the backdrop of a professional career in Europe that has allowed me to make all these connections. 

Policy is ultimately reflected through the prism of individual experiences.

To guarantee wider policy debate, we need to incorporate more ‘lived experience’ 3“Personal knowledge about the world gained through direct, first-hand involvement in everyday events rather than through representations constructed by other people. It may also refer to knowledge of people gained from direct face-to-face interaction rather than through a technological medium.” – https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100109997 in the policy design phase, because those underrepresented experiences are the blind spots that, if not considered, could cause unwanted accidents. 

While the importance of lived experience is gaining recognition as a tool for explanation, insight and empathy, within policy debates we have not managed to properly appreciate the significance of such views which often fall outside of the hegemony. Movement such as Poverty2Solutions have worked, admirably, in the UK to put the lived experiences of people struggling with poverty at the heart of policy making because, according to the organisation, being on the receiving end of policy without having a say in the design of the policy solution is no longer an option in our modern world. 

Noteworthy and courageous, Poverty2Solution, nevertheless, remains the exception and not the norm. Yet, if we strive to give more weight to the ‘lived experience’ of policy (alongside well-established metrics, of course), then we might have a chance to create more nuanced and innovative policy responses. 

Coming back to my childhood struggle with bi-polarism, and my experience with launching AE, I have understood that policy cannot be simplified into a two-sided coin, of which ‘both sides’ are provided. It’s more like a multifaceted Rubik’s Cube, which can take many shapes and forms, and is notoriously difficult to solve. Methodical, patient, and mindful approaches are best, and nuance is of utmost importance. With every article we publish and every conversation we stimulate, we hope to reflect that, while also providing a hub of accessible policy ideas that aim to ultimately inform, inspire and include. 

Personally, I’ve never solved the Rubik’s Cube. Yet, despite my frustration with it at times, I still believe in the continual effort to do so. I hope you do too after reading this, because policy experimenting is truly an effort: a collective human one. 


 

Want to know how this podcast interview turned out? Click on the link below to hear Miguel and I tackle this topic in French. 

 

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Fatemeh Jailani

Born and raised in California as a first-generation American balancing between western life and eastern heritage, I moved to France in 2008 in the pursuit of a degree in International Economic Policy. Two years later I got the degree… along with a European mindset to compliment the rest. Working between Paris and the EU capital for the next nine years, I realized to what extent EU policy discussions remain inaccessible to most Europeans… and non-Europeans. With a multidimensional understanding of the world, I felt privileged having this insider and comparative perspective which allowed me to set the EU against a greater backdrop, and ironically, appreciate its existence at a time of growing Euroscepticism. As someone that has “accidentally” navigated through many cultural and social perspectives, I fundamentally believe that if we can bridge perspectives, we can promote a tolerant world equipped in co-creating better and agile solutions for tomorrow’s pressing challenges. That is the fundamental reason why I founded Accidental European.
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