A Call for Humble Governments

How to overcome political gridlock in liberal democracies

Liberal democracies are facing unprecedented societal challenges. A global pandemic, ecological crises, technological disruption, and tectonic shifts in the world economy have created new, intertwined threats to their stability. Political hyper-polarization further escalates these threats by hampering the capacity of democratic governments to build sustainable paths forward. To retain legitimacy, liberal democracies must find new ways of creating solutions and enabling ambitious reforms despite political gridlock. 

 

This is why Demos Helsinki has recently collaborated with the Prime Minister’s Office of Finland and Prof. Charles Sabel from Columbia Law School to propose an approach to the policymaking process that aims to renew how governments steer and regulate societies through collaboration and iteration. We call this approach Humble Governance. 

 

Why Humble?

 

The model — based on Prof. Sabel’s experimentalist governance theory — starts with a simple assumption that has many important implications: to restore their capacity to solve collective problems in times of political anxiety and uncertainty, governments need to learn how to be humble.

 

Humility entails both a willingness to listen to different opinions and a capacity to review one’s own actions in light of new insights. By abandoning the pretense of infallibility, governments then boost their capacity to engage in effective long-term problem-solving.

 

Humble governance as a process for nurturing consensus in contexts of uncertainty and gridlock

 

The Humble Governance model allows for problem-solving to be initiated as soon as decision-makers have reached a thin consensus around a framework goal. Once a thin consensus is reached, the model gives societal stakeholders the autonomy to pursue these goals based on their proximity and knowledge of the topic. Peer learning and iterative revision of the framework goal then come into play, fostering a  thicker consensus as the process provides results and actors prove to be trustworthy.

 

Figure 1. Four main steps for nurturing consensus in the Humble Governance model

 

Humility in practice

 

Demos Helsinki has already begun working with governments towards the institutionalization of formal setups for systematically deploying this approach. Yet, humility is not new: it is just hidden in plain sight. 

 

One of the greatest Finnish success stories – the education system – is a prime example of the core principles of humble governance in practice. Broad framework goals for primary education are set in the Finnish national curriculum, but teachers and schools are trusted with a high level of autonomy to implement the curriculum as they see fit. The teachers’ first-hand knowledge is then used to revise the national curriculum when needed. This sort of continuous commitment to political and societal collaboration and to continuous iteration and periodic revision helped ensure innovation in teaching and learning on the ground was able to feed into the policymaking process. 

 

The conditions of humble policymaking can also be identified in the efforts of several governments to create sustainable solutions to substantial problems – from the State of California tightening standards for vehicle emissions globally to the Montreal Protocol designed to protect the ozone layer, both further explored in the publication.

 

By launching A Call for Humble Governments, we hope to provide concrete steps out of the gridlock that has stifled our societies’ capacity for progress.

 

For further inquiries:

 

Mikko Annala

Lead, Governance Innovation

mikko.annala@demoshelsinki.fi

+358 40 778 6062

 

João Sigora 

Senior Consultant

joao.sigora@demoshelsinki.fi

+55 61 981502888