The Risk-Monger

The look of bewilderment on Mohamed ElBaradei’s face said it all. He had expected to be crowned the noble philosopher king on his arrival in Cairo. Instead he found a Facebook revolution where the leadership was expected to be faceless. The generation leading the protests was alien to him – alien to most people over 40. The social media tools they were using were open – there was no hierarchy and the structure was fluid. Leaders are considered elite, untrustworthy and unwelcome in a world where everyone engages with everyone.

Social media is a communications tool born of a different political approach – participatory, engaging, transparent and non-elitist. Things happen out of processes – dialoguing to a common consensus. Gone are decisive leaders acting on expert advice. The experts we listen to today are no longer professors, researchers or Nobel laureates, but rather Wiki-experts named “Slimy” or “HappyHash” – people adept at arriving at consensus definitions of the lowest common denominator rather than insightful research and challenging debates. We can RSS our information sources to ensure that we don’t hear other views than those who agree with us. Rather than reading, we Google for information we are looking for.

There is no following in a participatory world – no decision can legitimately be taken unless we have all been consulted, engaged with, and ultimately made to feel ownership of the outcome (why, unless you live in China, it is getting very hard to build a runway, site a waste disposal facility or cut down a tree). Without the buy-in of all stakeholders, policy-makers feel a threat to their credibility and legitimacy. When people disagree with decisions, they lash out with the invective: “Not in my name”. (No exclamation mark needed there because this reaction is usually woefully tepid. “Mr Blair, you want to invade Iraq – well, not in my name.” Or “Mr De Wever, you want to break up Belgium – well, not in my name. So there!”)

The participatory approach of engaging and dialoguing until a consensus is reached (and followed up with further consultation) is very democratic in the Athenian sense. It is a process that evolved out of the loss of trust with authorities during policy crises in the 1990s (GMOs, BSE, dioxins). Expert advice was considered elitist (and corrupted by corporate interest groups) and scientists found themselves beholden not to the credibility of their evidence but to the whims of the stakeholder engagement. Their factual information was weighed against public perceptions, activist campaigns and political processes that reward cunning negotiators. For example, the WTO ruled that the scientific evidence supporting the safety of GM foods was sound and yet we are far from ever knowingly serving GM on our plates. Sanco has even gone so far as to propose ‘complexifying’ the registration process even more by throwing it back to Member States. Leadership or cunning?

What sort of leaders does this process produce?

Gone are the days of Jacques Delors and Margaret Thatcher slugging it out over what vision of the EU we should be creating. Now we celebrate Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton – leaders standing on burnt patches of grass as their eminence evidently cast no shadows. They are process policy wonks that manage to get from A to B painlessly – building consensus without offering ideas or vision. Their leadership skills threaten no one (fortunate given the low leadership levels coming out of EU member states). Since Delors, the European Commission has been listing under the weight of successive librarians posing as leaders. They have done a fair job implementing many of Delors’ visions, but what else? Transparency initiative? It is a process tool to encourage rules of consultation rather than decision-making. Today the great leaders are gathering in Brussels to discuss innovation … they will look at finding a consensus of the lowest common denominator to push forward an innovation strategy … right! They will not even define innovation (there is a question for the press conference).

What sort of decisions does this process produce?

That is a trick question since there really are no decisions any more. Rather, decision-making processes are initiated (usually through consultations), and even years later when the work is done, the outcome is evaluated and eventually revised in a never-ending process. If there is ever a sense of urgency which might knock us out of our infinite policy loop, the only real alternative is to take precaution. The precautionary principle makes policy-processors look caring, and as we’ll see in a blog planned for next week, they never have to take responsibility for decisions made from precaution. They can, for example, take precaution on GMOs (and say they are earning our trust), but they won’t have to take responsibility for rising food prices, hunger and failed crops.

Environmental activists play this up. Stir up uncertainty and continue to extend the dialogue process until policy-processors either give in or give up. Three decades on nuclear and chlorine, two decades on GMOs… there is no time limit if the public can be kept afraid and kept donating. When scientists show certainty, there are other mechanisms and communications tools to clog up the wheels to ensure that the policy process won’t function properly. This is becoming a sort of neo-anarchism – make it impossible for policy-makers to function – deny legitimacy unless the activists are brought to the table, and once at the table, make the demands too high to be acceptable and accept no compromises on a consensus-based system they demanded (as a means to restore credibility). Nothing functions except to undo what had been done (precautionary measures). An anarchist’s dream come true.

Anarchy is only desirable for those who can’t trust the establishment. Those who believe that experts are elitists would rather have a system too tied up to function. In such a situation, it can only go backwards and if they think that progress is poison, then going backwards is not too bad of a solution. For these activists, it is better to have leaderless technocrats limping through a process than have someone capable or bold enough to make a decision.

I would like to wish the EU leaders good luck today as they meet in Brussels and try to lead on innovation and progress.

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