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Governing in an era of disruption: rupture and community-led reconfiguration

21 June 2020

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Carolyn Hendriks is an Associate Professor with a background in both political science and environmental engineering. Her work examines democratic aspects of contemporary governance, including participation, deliberation, inclusion and representation.

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Crises call for exceptional ways of doing things. Over the past few months we have seen extraordinary reaches of the state in the form of extreme health orders, massive stimulus measures and centralised interventions. But is big top-down government the best way to govern through and beyond this period of extreme disruption? Writes Carolyn Hendriks, with Sango Mahanty and Sarah Milne

In this piece we explore the challenge of governing diverse communities, many of whom in Australia have experienced successive mega-crises including the bushfires, COVID and now economic recession. Moving forward we must govern inclusively over the long term in ways that generate public legitimacy and trust.

Governing diverse impacts

In his 1947 novel, The Plague, Albert Camus describes how epidemics do not discriminate. The new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is no exception – it has infected celebrities, political leaders and frontline workers alike.

The plague was no respecter of persons and under its despotic rule everyone, from the Governor down to the humblest delinquent, was under the sentence and, perhaps for the first time, impartial justice reigned…. p.140

Yet the consequences of an infectious disease and policy measures to control it do discriminate. Indeed COVID-19 and policy measures to manage it, have exposed some of the most vulnerable in our society: those with underlying health conditions, those in care, those with poor access to health systems, the homeless, the jobless, those with job insecurity and so on. So while we all face the same virus, there are unequal vulnerabilities, experiences and consequences. The pandemic has exposed and intensified systemic weaknesses that perpetuate these vulnerabilities. Moving forward, we need to govern for all, by keeping the impact and lived experiences of diverse people, especially the vulnerable, in clear view. Our renewed awareness of systemic inequities also provides an opportunity to address differentiated impacts.

Governing over the long-term

While epidemics might begin as dramatic events, their drama soon wears down, as Camus writes:

The truth is that nothing is less sensational than pestilence, and by reason of their very duration great misfortunes are monotonous. p. 148

In those countries where the pandemic is momentarily under control, the risk is that we may all tire of what controlling the virus requires us to do. Indeed, boredom and frustration have profound implications for how we govern. Recent protests about personal freedoms around the globe demonstrate that expecting people to accept strict policy measures over the long haul will be challenging. Our contemporary crises – including COVID-19, bushfires, and climate change – are not single one-off disaster events. These are wide-scale long-term disruptions that requires us to fundamentally rethink what ‘crisis governance’ involves.

Governing for reconfiguration not ‘snap back’

Conventional approaches to crisis and disaster management tend to focus on snapping back to the way things were. But as we see in the characters in The Plague, living through months of an epidemic can profoundly reshape the way people view the world, and what they value. Similarly disruptive events provide opportunities for societies to reflect and rethink on collective goals, and to reconfigure institutions.

Over the past few months Australia has faced multiple crises in the form of bushfires, floods, storms, COVID and their economic and social consequences. These events have also involved policy interventions that have been – in and of themselves – highly disruptive. Some ‘lock-down’ measures generated new crises, such economic and social instability, while others have created new opportunities, for example through increased welfare support, training opportunities, and free childcare.

We have argued in a recent piece in the Conversation that these kinds of disruptions constituted a ‘rupture’ – a period of potential transformation. Rupture, we contend, provides opportunities for policy makers and politicians to challenge path dependencies, and consider new ways of understanding and solving collective problems. We are not alone in this hope; ethicist David Killoren refers to the disruptive potential of a ‘collective transformative experience’ (drawing on the work of Laurie. A. Paul).

From a governing perspective, we see glimpses of this transformative potential with the Federal Government’s uncharacteristically constructive governing style, which opened opportunities to debate formerly ossified policy issues such as wage and tax reform, and vocational education.

Governing with, not just for, our communities

Opportunities for reconfiguration lie not just in what issues we govern, but also how. Much of Australia’s successful response to COVID-19 thus far has been credited to people ‘staying at home’ and in most cases being prepared to put the broader collective interests of the community before their own individual needs. However, when it comes to governing our way out of the pandemic, the role of the public has been largely reduced to one of passive obedience where we are to download an app and take directives from the state.

In our COVID-19 world many important collective decisions are being made behind closed doors. Public judgements are largely being informed by experts and elite taskforces not through the deliberations or scrutiny of our elected representatives and the broader public. In the immediacy of a crisis, our leaders have established ‘emergency governance’ mechanisms, such as the Morrison Government’s National Covid-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC). But as the COVID-19 pandemic draws out, much more transparency is needed over how long will these elite taskforces will operate, their powers and remit, and their impact on our democratic processes. Over time this kind of top-down crisis governance will struggle to generate the necessary trust and public legitimacy for ongoing policy reforms, as societies seek to recover and reconfigure from the effects of multiple crises.

Reflecting on the experiences of COVID governance in the US, our colleague Professor Archon Fung from Harvard University argues:

Although many call for decisive central action to stem the pandemic, local innovation and leadership from citizens, civic, and private organizations—sometimes in the face of centralized obstruction—have often shown the way so far.

Fung calls for the US federal government to take more notice of the innovative governance responses of state and local governments.

We agree with Fung that local level responses to COVID-19 hold important governance lessons. Beyond intergovernmental policy learning, our policies could be better informed about the direct experiences and actions of everyday people who not only bear the brunt of disruptive events, but often do remarkable things in response to them. For example, in response to the rupture of the bushfires and COVID-19 people have self-organised to fill gaps, and to create networks and solutions where government, markets and formal civil society groups are absent or have failed. Most of these small-scale efforts are driven by unassuming individuals at the local level. Just as in Camus’ plague-afflicted city of Oran, so much of the collective hope and sense of possibility in our current period of rupture is seeded through the virtues and capacities of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

A key question to consider is: how can our decision makers and leaders be more receptive to these diverse voices and actions of the public?

Community-led approaches

The benefits of more consultative styles of governance are well known. Diverse public input can strengthen public policy through new knowledge, networks, solutions, legitimacy and more. Today there is an abundance of innovative citizen engagement processes that governments can use to inject public input into policy designs and decisions. But these are ultimately participatory patches that do little to address the underlying governance challenge of our time: that our ‘democratic fabric’ is wearing thin as people lose faith and trust in institutions that govern them.

In the face of this conundrum some commentators suggest we need to upgrade our representative democratic institutions by establishing citizens’ deliberative bodies, along the lines of Ireland’s constitutional convention. While there is no doubt that deliberative processes could play a role in advising governments on specific COVID-19 related policy decisions, in our view a much broader approach to engaging the public in an era of disruption is needed – one that looks beyond ‘designed’ participatory processes.

The applied field of community-led disaster studies offers rich insights into how governments can best steer the recovery processes in ways that empower communities and build societal and institutional trust. Some of our key take homes from this field include:

• Disasters and dramatic events can sever existing social groupings and create new ones. New cleavages and alliances can emerge but so can conflicts.

• Successful disaster recovery lies in governments working with communities, by empowering people to lead and participate in local recovery and renewal efforts.

• Affected individuals, groups and communities find value and strength in participating in the design of, and decisions about how to transition from old to new.

• Community-led recovery is not only effective but it is essential for generating hope, ownership, and long-term public legitimacy of recovery efforts.

• Recovery must be just and equitable; this requires listening to diverse voices, and tapping into not just expert knowledge but also lived experiences.

• Effective long-term recovery requires open, transparent governance with opportunities for public oversight.

Governing our way through successive mega-disruptions is not easy. But everything we know about effective disaster recovery tells us that elite top-down governance can do more harm than good. A more productive way forward is to facilitate community-led transition by supporting diverse individuals, groups and communities to work with public institutions so they can be part of crafting the ‘new normal’. This might involve challenging established pathways and stepping outside go-to fixes, experimenting with new ways to solve collective problems, creating spaces for effective listening and reflection, and encouraging diverse actors to push along small-scale democratic repair work. This ability to openly experiment with new and inclusive types of policy intervention is crucial to ensuring that our governance pathways through these times of rupture are effective and legitimate, and lead us to better futures.

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Updated:  24 September 2020/Responsible Officer:  Crawford Engagement/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team