Text size: A A A

Tom Burton: the new normal of empowered citizenry and flux

Saturday’s federal election result confirms the continued fragmentation of our society and the challenge for governments to adapt to the new order of citizen empowerment.

The citizenry is now armed with powerful technologies that give them unheralded ability to organise, engage and prosecute their interests. These interests cover a broad range including domestic violence, same-sex marriage, local culture, First Australians’ rights, labour terms and conditions, and regional internet connectivity.

As Saturday’s poll revealed the smarter groups are already using this new found power to exert huge pressure on the political system and ruthlessly demanding their interests be heard.

Both parties will endeavour to put their own take on the election result. But for the political class it is yet another reminder it will be the parties that can best draw together and work constructively in this noisy, unruly multi-interest world, that will emerge as successful.

“Bureaucrats cannot simply blame the demise of the comfortable two-party system for not being able to progress well-thought-through programs and change.”

This is also a challenge for the institutional pillars that have underpinned the unarguably successful reinvigoration of Australia as a modern, secure, diverse and economically strong nation over the last three decades.

Australia has undeniably done well from the last 30 years of broad consensus around economic and technological liberation. This consensus had been underpinned by a broad coalition between government, business, labour and community groups.

For a variety of reasons, in recent years this consensus has broken down, with empowered sectional interests demanding — and often getting — special privileges. This has left many groups disaffected and unable till recently to gain voice.

Chief among these disaffected are the “losers” of this global digital era. Those whose wellbeing has been based around economies and jobs, which are either being decimated by the new economic order, or who find themselves literally slaves to a system that is seeing their welfare frozen or going rapidly backwards. This is — as has often been noted — a phenomena across most western societies.

Policy consensus in a pluralist world

Thoughtful observers, such as former mandarin Terry Moran, argue the challenge for the political and administrative class is to reinvent the prevailing policy consensus and its fascination with globalisation, economic reform and the “residualisation” of the public sector, with a more relevant agenda that picks up the broader concerns of the community and devises new policy responses to them.

Moran argues that ideas drive policy, which eventually drives the agenda of politics. It is from this fundamental level that the rethink will come.

This is a major challenge for the custodians of the system, the professional public servants, think tanks and academic contributors who have the best grip on the ideas and policy options available to government.

For the Canberra central agencies — that have successfully prosecuted the prevailing economic theology of the last 30 years — it means a rapid adaption to a policy framework that works with the reality of our globally connected world, but that successfully delivers the benefits to a far wider group. These benefits need to be in terms of the things that matter to communities, in this much more pluralist world. And delivered in a manner that does not alienate or leave behind significant sections of the community.

Engagement and authenticity more important than ever

In my view the other major challenge for the public sector is to build the consensus needed to be effective in this world where everyone has an internet megaphone. With the political system struggling to come to terms with its loss of power, public institutions and their leaders are being challenged to be the bridge in their communities.

This requires a rapid improvement in the ability of public sector to effectively work in the new paradigm of an empowered citizenry. This means a far more sophisticated approach to inclusive policy and program design, meaningful engagement, deep authenticity and a technical capability to use the modern systems of communication that many agencies are still struggling with.

In reality it also means an ability to navigate and remain effective in a period of political flux. Public sector leaders cannot simply blame the demise of the comfortable two-party system for not being able to progress well-thought-through programs and change.

With political executives around the world and across the country now being severely checked, the professional public administrative class needs to adapt to the new conditions, rather than become road kill in the noisy and contentious transition of power, now well under way.

This has to be done in a period of profound and rapid change, one where the winners will be the economies that find an orderly, smart and focused way to grab the massive opportunities available to a modern, well-developed, diverse and secure country like Australia.

Author Bio

Tom Burton

Tom Burton is publisher of The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He has served in various public administration roles, specialising in the media and communications sector. He was a Walkley Award-winning journalist and executive editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He worked as Canberra bureau chief for the Australian Financial Review and as managing editor of smh.com.au. He most recently worked at the Australian Communications and Media Authority.