Delivery is key to democatic legitimacy

Delivery and dialogue: key to EU democratic legitimacy


Too often, the concept of liberal democracy is reduced to elections. They are only the formal part of democracy; material democracy, the substance, can be quite far away still and various degrees of authoritarianism remain possible. This is shown clearly in so-called ‘illiberal democracy’. Democracy requires translation of the general interest into evidence based, effective policies which deliver broadly desired outcomes. Evidence requires to a broad range of contextual analysis with input from stakeholders and outcomes need to evolve depending on feedbacks and contextual change. In the current European Union, this is difficult because of the non-aligned views and interests of its component parts, an in-built preference for technocratic and stable legalistic governance.

Economic, ecological and (geo-)political developments have led to ever more new objectives being set for the EU. But not enough attention is being paid to delivery and to dialogues with the technocracy during the preparatory phases of policy-making. Failed dialogues lead to failed delivery and undermines trust and legitimacy of governments and of EU institutions alike, leading to a degeneration of democracy. One of the causes of this problem is a dominance of legalistic thinking and a tendency to focus on repartition of competences between the EU and the Member States, and within the EU institutions themselves, leading to silo thinking and behaviour, and to a lack of policy coherence and efficacy.

In order to solve the convergent problems of the EU and to design an appropriate way forward, decision-makers should complement political-legalistic thinking, which suffers from a ‘sovereignty lock-in syndrome’, and which dates from the 1950s (but with roots in the 1930s), with modern systems and management thinking. According to many scholars, even this may not be enough to move the EU into 21st-century governance, but at least it would be a step forward, which can lead to further improvement.

Systems theory explains that one is faced with paradigm shifts when too many anomalies and dysfunctions occur simultaneously in a particular context and when these can no longer be explained within existing thinking frameworks. It then requires an equally radical shift of mind-set and operational modes. (Thomas Kuhn, The structure of scientific revolutions) Management sciences allow for an interdisciplinary approach to problem solving and achieving desired outcomes, by looking at the management ecology and by adapting management to objectives. (Peter Drucker, Management for the 21st century)

Instead of seeking to fit new policies into existing steering models designed for other objectives, the operational models need adaptation to the new policies. Both are required in order to use the system’s leverage points and to push it in the right direction. One cannot build an electric car with the production models of the mechanical one; neither can one develop policies on, for example, migration or climate, with the methods for construction of a common market.

A discussion has been launched now about the reform of the EU, and five possible political scenarios have been proposed; recently, a sixth scenario has emerged, combining elements of the others. They are supposed to lead to another ‘historic declaration’, a speciality of the EU. Whatever may come out, simple continuation with the present governance system, designed for a different time and purpose, is no option to achieve new goals and expectations. But attention to modern governance is hardly present in Brussels discussions.

In order to increase its efficacy of delivery but at the same time improve the balance between technocratic and democratic governance, at a time of a decline in functionalist economic views in favour of more ecological, cultural and social needs and of a generational shift, radical innovation in its public sector should be among the priorities now. Inevitably, innovation is disruptive; if it is not, it is stagnation.

The focus must move towards efficacy of delivery, complementing political-legalistic thinking about competences with modern management methods about delivery and adjusted to a digital age, to new policy objectives and to the current societal culture and expectations. It will give the EU new vigour, credibility and legitimacy.

A change process in established, but no longer up-to-date systems, has two prerequisites: strong leadership and disruptive innovative thinking. The first must be positioned inside the system, but it will only happen if the leadership has proven skills for managing deep change. It is a quality not usually required for Commission Presidents. The second has to come mainly from outside the system, because (internal and external) vested interests nearly always prefer an appearance of change over a game change. The lack of attention, let alone pressure, of EU Member State Governments has been glaring for two decades at least.

Radical innovation may be asking for too much. But system innovation in the European public sector can be done with incremental steps which create a self-propelling change process if – and only if – they are part of a comprehensive ecosystem design and approach. The current reforms (for example the better regulation policy, which in ten years has achieved nothing tangible) are based too much on path-dependent thinking and a hidden desire to change only appearances. The Commission should try again, and a first step could be using new thinking about strategic agility or leadership under complexity to set the direction of a change process; bureaucratic inertia will certainly ensure that one does not come very far and that ecosystem thinking, the basis of 21st century governance, does not pass the intellectual security controls. Still, one or two steps forward is better than the current stalemate.

Regardless of the future scenario chosen for the EU, Member State governments have little choice but to support a real game-changing process, because they will be the ultimate beneficiaries (for example, as with the game-changing Single Market), or the ultimate losers. The EU is de facto a joint venture between states to minimize the costs of their respective economic and social priorities in an increasingly interdependent context. This required a (limited) transfer of legal competences and more efficient allocation of resources, but at the cost of national sovereignty and democracy.

The latter requires new ways of bringing alignment of vision, purpose and implementation; this has received too little attention, in favour of a legalistic view of democracy and its formalistic side: elections. But parliaments are losing importance in all states because of the increased role of the executive; in addition, in a supra-national system it distorts the necessary checks and balances between the Member States. It cannot bring more democratic legitimacy because there is no European ‘polis’, society or nation. Therefore, one must widen thinking about European governance and democracy.

New major challenges have appeared which cannot be solved within the legalistic conceptual frameworks inherited from the 1950s and which still frame the Lisbon Treaty. They are driven by the consequences of monetary integration, the shift to a sustainable economy, the on-going industrial revolution, growing inequality within and between countries, and geo-political developments. The governance system needs to adapt to these in order to deliver the desired outcomes for all citizens.

Innovation requires thinking outside-the-box, away from silos and vested interests, focussing on complex ecosystems which make up modern economies and societies. To do so in public sector systems, one needs to find more inspiration in experiences of countries which have positioned themselves at the top of innovation and competitiveness rankings, and – why not – at the private sector which copes generally better and faster with new contextual conditions. Of course the EU cannot simply copy; only learn from them, with an open mind.

There is no objective reason to ignore in the public sector the matrix management approach of the private, combining horizontal functions, relevant for the overarching strategy (key political objectives) and all product lines, and vertical, line-based functions (sector policies). What about collaborative sharing of responsibilities, joint ventures (internal or external), innovation deals, voluntary agreements, and other models for reaching desired objectives? Innovative, adaptive corporations have dynamic management methods; they are better at avoiding or at rapidly eliminating contradictory arrangements.

There is no objective reason either why a supra-national system of governance cannot look for inspiration at the most performing national systems. A new scenario at the spring 2019 European Council needs to be accompanied by a new system of delivery. This cannot emerge by simply continuing the governance concepts and methods set out in the 1950s for a common market with six countries, or by current superficial changes.

Interacting economic, social and cultural developments have led today to a growing critique of technocratic governance. European public sector innovation should have therefore as twin objectives to improve the quality of democracy and simultaneously to ensure effective governance delivering the desired outcomes.

The EU governance system needs adaptation to a volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous new world (VUCA). But its diverse institutional components and the interactions between them face great difficulty in adapting to new paradigms. Useful ideas, promising initiatives and reform attempts get stuck, because the ecology of management is insufficiently taken into account. There is little comparison possible between managing the integration of the factors of production in a common and single market and designing policies for climate change, research and innovation, managing global interdependence, cybersecurity, supporting modernisation of welfare state systems, or a circular economy, to name a few current policy challenges.

To achieve systemic change, the EU should be seen as a cluster of national economic and social ecosystems that must be managed collaboratively instead of hierarchically. Only an ecosystem approach will help to overcome the present silos and EU-Member State antagonism and to bring about continuity, complementarity and coherence between European and national policy-making. A lot can be done without modifying the Treaties.

Setting grand missions is useful but requires cross-disciplinary inputs and cross-sector collaboration of people with core and secondary competences, from different policy levels (EU, Member States) and from the private sector (business, civic society). Missions require a managerial ecosystem to achieve the objectives through co-creation and complementary implementation by the various stakeholders throughout the process.

To reduce the tension between technocratic and democratic governance, meaningful dialogue methods must replace dated consultation methods. Real dialogue starts with common problem definition which is of as equal importance as problem-solving. Internal and external knowledge must be combined, precisely because it can upset the established internal cognitive patterns. This implies a radical change: consultation is a hierarchical, linear process; dialogue is non-hierarchical engagement with stakeholders. It has to be learned.

To properly assess paradigm shifts and to align various agendas, it is essential to involve not only stakeholders but also the centres of knowledge creation. Research has shown that there is a positive correlation between a society’s degree of tolerance for the independent, unorthodox, creative and entrepreneurial-minded and its economic success and social beneficiation. Therefore, outside-the box thinkers and critical stakeholders will have positive effects if taken seriously.

All this should lead to much improved evidence about the complexity of policy-making, delivered by a variety of stakeholders, but followed by a strictly scientific and multi-disciplinary testing. Positions not validated by scientific peer review should be resisted and not become politically validated because of electoral expediency. This requires a better use of existing own resources and of outside ones. Because the EU has moved from a relatively stable environment into a permanently evolving one, it is necessary therefore to move beyond a culture of regulation and control and towards a culture of flexible and incentive-compatible mentoring and coaching of all stakeholders, without excluding regulation when proven necessary.

This would bring real subsidiarity without reducing the growing need for efficacious collaboration, with diversity and mutuality as guiding principles. The choice of policy direction to achieve common goals can often remain at national level. EU legislation, if needed, can be restricted to framework legislation. National policy choices can be defined as matters of common concern, and efforts can be made to reach agreement on common objectives and clear benchmarks. Governments present their plans for achieving common goals and peer review their performance. Collaboration is voluntary (see also blog on Improving EU democracy and government efficiency).

These ideas may seem radical if judged in the light of more than two decades of operational stagnation in EU governance. They are timid if seen in the light of current policy-making challenges.

Stefan Schepers