This pandemic, we’re told, is leading to the tearing up of rule books. Perhaps, but it’s not doing away with the importance of rules – the rules of thumb that should guide us in finding our way in uncharted waters.
Right now, everything is uncertain. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a system of decision-making that maximises our chances of getting it right. Here are five rules of public engagement that offer the best chances of a robust-but-flexible system.
Rule 1: Unity of purpose does not mean uniformity of thought.
Yes, cohesion is important. But debating policies and challenging decisions – as long as it’s constructive – help us keep track of the challenge and mistakes. This crisis is beyond the experience of any single profession. It challenges every orthodoxy and heresy. So we need solutions to come from a wide variety of sources.
Any unworkable proposal might be a stepping stone to a better idea. We should be grateful to people who make proposals even while being braced to be mocked as fools or worse.
Rule 2: Given the unprecedented nature of the crisis, we should have a higher tolerance for policy mistakes.
Mistakes are inevitable. This is a multidimensional crisis, with every decision having imponderable consequences. No one is qualified to judge the entire set of consequences.
A lockdown might save the lives of victims of the coronavirus, but result in deaths caused partly by an economic squeeze. All solutions are necessarily experimental and provisional.
What we should expect of our leaders is the humility to recognise and fix mistakes quickly. That humility includes setting up a system of dialogue with all stakeholders so that mistakes can be quickly signalled.
Rule 3: We need to agree that this crisis is taking place in what some call a ‘wicked learning environment’.
It’s not taking place in a closed system bound by a fixed set of rules for everyone – like a sport. In a wicked learning environment, the value of experience is dubious. Not everyone is bound by the same rules.
I think this is the major flaw in what is an otherwise ingenious, imaginative proposal by the former finance minister, Tonio Fenech. He has proposed that a ‘time out’ – analogous to the ones imposed in certain sports – should be imposed on our economy.
Except that an economy is not like a sport. It has organised criminal components, whose business is to break the rules, and which will respond ingeniously – in ways it might take time and resources to discern – to exploit a new set of rules. It’s an additional conflict we do not have the means to fight properly.
What we should expect of our leaders is the humility to recognise and fix mistakes quickly
Nor should we assume that this crisis will have only two key factors: health and economy. Other rogue actors, like terrorists, might decide to exploit it.
We do not know in advance if an economic time out would be an advantage or a handicap in such circumstances.
Rule 4: Given the unprecedented crisis, we should not choose solutions that are themselves unprecedented. Otherwise, we might find ourselves unable to judge if we’re making progress or not.
In any crisis, there will be panic at various times. It is precedent that helps political and entrepreneurial leaders gauge progress or regress.
True, the financial resources being thrown at the crisis are unprecedented – but only in scale, not in the mechanisms used. The funds are themselves split into smaller, sectoral packages, with each one assessed by specialised industry experts.
The lack of precedent is being mitigated by plenty of experience in interpreting economic signals. And an international similarity of approach helps create data that everyone can use. It’s one reason why any Maltese set of policy solutions should be biased towards adopting solutions that are similar to those adopted elsewhere.
Rule 5: The financial response needs to be massive – because it needs to be proportionate – but also to be invested in a wide range of responses.
This ‘diversified portfolio’ approach makes individual mistakes less costly and easier to correct. It gives more scope for experimentation and recalibration of policies.
A wicked learning environment downgrades the value of historic experience, but it does not preclude fast learning.
Our policies need to be flexible enough to be able to respond not just to the exponential growth of illness, but also to the exponential growth of human knowledge of how to fight it.
Our policies need to be open to further major surprises, which could be good news as well as bad. This openness should not be mistaken for optimism. It’s a realist recognition that we are out of our depth, unable to know if we have even grasped the full scope of this crisis.
It is changing the ways we communicate and cooperate. It is possible that it lies beyond our present comprehension, and we may need to change our way of thinking to understand it fully.
All this should bias us in favour of approaches based on dialogue between all stakeholders so that experience can be shared quickly. No doubt there will be free-riders and price-gougers and, if it’s obvious who they are, they should be named and shamed. But the problem they pose is only a small part of the picture.
Nor should we bet the house on a single bold solution – since we might not yet have grasped the problem – or on the judgement of a small group of decision makers.
Politicians who expect their judgement to be automatically trusted are part of the problem. Nothing can have prepared them for what we’re facing. The only way out of this is by pooling judgement.
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