Recently I have been reading an increasing number of comments about institutional and governance failure – about how our governance systems don’t work any longer. The comments seem to fall into two categories – despair, and hope. Some people look at the failure of governance to deal with changing circumstances, and think the answer is to institute ever more control. Others look at such failure and see hope for creating something new.
It reminds me that when I first began studying ‘failed states’ earlier this decade, I discovered – amid the many ideas for teaching improved governance to ‘failing’ governments – a wonderful nugget of new possibility. This was the idea that state failure provided an opportunity to create something entirely new, and that such failure was – as in nature – a natural part of life. It was not something to be addressed by trying to restore systems that no longer worked – as in Somalia.
Today’s governance institutions are in some ways the last remnant of 19th century industrial structure. Government structures haven’t really changed that much in a century – they still organize themselves within ‘silos’, as if a health department is solely responsible for health and an employment department is solely responsible for work. At best, they seem to tinker with the names, so that ‘unemployment insurance’ becomes ‘employment insurance’ but the complex rules don’t change.
Similarly, at the international level, governments often behave as if they are the only ones who can solve a problem, even as it becomes clear to everyone that our problems are interconnected and so the solutions must also be interconnected. Municipalities, as the level of governance closest to people locally, have known this for quite some time and have been on the leading edge of changing structures to more effectively serve people.
But this change from the bottom doesn’t seem to percolate upwards. Governments seem to be the prisoners of bureaucratic structures that change slowly and creakily, if at all. I think this is because governments have seen their role as ‘controlling’ rather than ‘co-creating’, even as factories and stores and schools changed how they operated. Deep down, this is because governments don’t seem to trust their citizens or don’t believe they can find solutions to challenging problems – even as citizens are doing so.
Food is one key example. Local solutions see how interconnected the challenges of farmers finding markets, children and hospital patients having better nutrition, and reducing carbon dioxide emissions are. So we have farmers using the internet to find customers locally and thus having a guaranteed market; schools and hospitals sourcing food locally, improving food quality and supporting local farmers; and people realizing that buying food locally means that food doesn’t have to be trucked, or flown in, from destinations far away.
Several years ago, a couple in BC began blogging about the question of where their food came from, and decided to live on food that was grown or raised only within a 100 mile radius. Their diet was quite sparse at first. For one thing, people no longer grew grain within that 100 miles as they had once done. Their experiment led to a book. That book created awareness, and awareness created change. People began to grow grain, to be aware of local food sources, and to begin supporting them. No one at the top decided to create a changed system – this change grew from the bottom up . And it has spread around the world, complementing the Slow Food Movement.
These self-organizing innovations come from the power of knowledge. Governments should work with them, rather than trying to co-opt them. I read yesterday that the Canadian food inspection agency has just changed the definition of ‘local’ to cover a much larger area than just the area around a community, and on the same day, food stores began to label as ‘local’ foods that are not grown as locally as local people understand the term.
Would it not be more sensible for government to collect these stories of innovation, share them, and also examine how their policies can support this kind of change? This is the idea of ‘government as platform’, rather than the idea of government as ‘regulator’.
In some ways, it seems that governments are contributing to the collapse of this idea of their role as manager, and regulator. Austerity, imposed from the top of the system downwards, has led many people to return to the communities they left, long ago, to seek opportunity in the city. This return to villages offers government an opportunity to support a more sustainable economy, but it requires governments to change how they think about what they do, and how they organize themselves. People who return to villages bring skills they learned in cities, and in turn must learn older skills from those who stayed, and this blend can rejuvenate local village economies – and this is true whether it is people returning as a result of governmental austerity policies, or refugees returning home after conflict.
Many of the most sustainable answers to drought-ravaged land come from local people who have learned how interconnected their problems are – water management, crop selection, land management, markets – and have been able to restore natural systems that once worked well. When others see these systems in action, and learn the principles behind them, they too adapt them for their villages. The result is a better life for everyone, as well as a healthier ecosystem.
One of the things about ‘government as platform’ is that platforms make possible widespread sharing of information. And once people have information, they use it locally in a way that fits their circumstances. So information platforms create diverse solutions that address problems as big as building peace, creating sustainable sanitation solutions, restoring degraded land – from a local perspective.
Underneath the radar, people around the world are reinventing governance as they find ways to manage land communally. To grow food for themselves and their community. To create work while protecting local resources and people. All of this offers an invitation to governments to change their approach, and thus their structure – not to try and strengthen structures developed in a bygone era that no longer work.