Time for a New Social Contract?

Time for a New Social Contract?
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There’s nothing to debate – partly because of technology, the average citizen is much more informed about pretty much everything, including what his government is doing or even thinking of doing (thanks to certain presidential tweets). And again, partly because of technology, the average citizen is also more activist against government, easily leveraging social media to organize protest movements. This is one reason for the global crisis of political legitimacy we have witnessed recurrently since 2010 – informed, tech-savvy citizens are challenging their governments, leaders or certain policies in some way, much more often in today’s post-hegemonic world. This strained relationship between citizens and government in many democracies and nondemocracies effectively means the social contract is broken. But perhaps leveraging technology could also repair this key relationship? It may be time to consider how technology can perhaps be built into a new social contract for renewed political legitimacy in many countries.

Let’s investigate:

First, the social contract boils down to the expectation that citizens have of government – so, what is it exactly that citizens expect? Well, it varies. But the demands from citizen protesters are worth examining. Put simply, when these citizens protest, they are effectively saying certain expectations of government have not been met. For instance, in Morocco, South Korea and Brazil, it is clear that citizens expect their governments to operate free of corruption; when they felt their government was corrupt, they protested and continue to do so. In various EU countries, including Spain, the UK and Greece, citizens expect a policy that doesn't take away their benefits; when they felt their government’s austerity policies were impacting their basic subsistence, they protested and continue to do so. If a government today wants to regain legitimacy in the eyes of its jaded population, it needs to recognize the expectation of its citizens as early as possible. In fact, technology could be leveraged by government to determine the growing expectation of its more informed, empowered, tech-savvy citizenry on a more regular basis – ideally before citizens feel the need to repeatedly challenge the legitimacy of their leaders through protest.

Second, today’s more informed, tech-empowered citizen clearly wants to have more dialogue with government, especially on contentious issues – and technology can help. Yes, we all know about US President Donald Trump’s tweets and he isn’t the only world leader using this form of public communication with citizens (eg Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi); his 36.7 million followers can hear exactly what he is thinking and in theory can respond with a tweet. Furthermore, more than half the world’s population is already engaging with government online; countries like Estonia are leading the way in e-governance with citizens doing almost every municipal or state service online in minutes; there are also govtech startups (e.g. CityBase in Chicago) making certain government services more accessible to citizens. This is all progress towards (re)building citizens’ trust in government, easing the recurring crisis of political legitimacy. Still, technology needs to be more central to the new social contract so the average citizen can interact with government much more often, especially on contentious issues. Let’s use technology so citizens can ask about policies relating to sensitive issues like corruption and austerity; citizens should have more opportunity to engage with government on their policy concerns more regularly – and should be able to expect a direct, timely response.

Third, today’s more informed, activist, tech-savvy citizen wants to have more input on policy – again, technology can help. Citizens have protested against specific policies like austerity in the EU for a few years – maybe it’s time to get their ideas on what might work better? Yes, this can of course backfire when the average citizen isn’t as informed as we hope (e.g. the Brexit referendum saw voters Googling “what is the EU” hours after leaving it). But crowdsourcing tech — i.e. using the wisdom of an informed crowd of citizens to make certain policy — could be one way to make some policymaking more inclusive. This technological approach to domestic policymaking was attempted in Iceland with its constitution — over 50 percent of the population offered their views through Facebook and Twitter. It didn’t quite work out the way we hoped, but it’s a start. It did, however, work in Finland with the passage of a new law — yes, it was just a non-controversial, off-road traffic law in a relatively stable country, but the point is it worked. Furthermore, certain research institutes (e.g. the Berggruen Institute’s Democracy for the Digital Society Project and NYU’s GovLab) are exploring new ideas to leverage technology to increase government legitimacy. All of this is progress toward rebuilding the critical relationship between citizens and government in many countries globally.

The bottom line – the social contract has been broken for awhile now and it’s time to do something about it. Whether we like it or not, any government in today’s post-hegemonic world, in the democratic or nondemocratic context, needs to account for a more informed, activist, tech-savvy citizenry and it also needs to leverage technology for renewed political legitimacy. This basic truth must be embedded in a new social contract in today’s post-hegemonic world.

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