Political Dialogue Stories: How Can Policymakers Be Architects of The Future? 7 Ideas From 3 Days Spent With 51 Politicians
Authors: Chiara Rosselli, Head of the Open European Dialogue and Executive Director of APROPOS |
Rebecca Farulli, Associate at APROPOS
Disclaimer: The Open European Dialogue is a cross-party, cross-country dialogue platform for European politicians. This piece does not represent the views of the Open European Dialogue, its partners, or its participants. It is written from the perspective of the author(s) alone. The author(s) share their personal insights on the state of European politics and political dialogue, informed by the conversations between members of parliaments from across Europe and the political spectrum.
Last month, 51 members of parliament from 28 different countries came together for the 8th Open European Dialogue in Helsinki to discuss a key issue concerning today’s political landscape: How can politicians successfully chart the course for our collective future whilst standing on ever-shifting grounds?
From our cross-party political dialogue, here are 7 key ideas that emerged on how politics and policymakers can embrace rapid technological change and uncertainty to remain effective architects of our society’s future.
#1 | Regain confidence in our agency.
Alice Walker, American novelist, social activist, and Pulitzer Prize winner, once said: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”
One way to regain agency, which was discussed in the dialogue, is through a different use of language. We continuously refer to tech as an autonomous agent, but underlying the centrality of human agency in the development of tech could be an important reframing technique and one that, some argue, more honestly depicts our reality. Instead of saying, “AI will disrupt the job market,” one idea that was offered was to always try and correct sentences like these to highlight the role of human agency: “We will allow AI to disrupt the job market.” To remove human agency from the equation is to forget that technology is driven forward by our own political choices.
#2 | Redesign institutions (it is not only possible but desired by many political operators).
“We designed these institutions; we can do it again.”
This quote gained popularity among the dialogue’s participants, who were inspired by best practices from other countries, particularly looking at the case of Finland’s Committee for the Future. Yet, a lot of thinking went beyond mere replication and towards re-invention. For example, some politicians voiced a clear frustration regarding the current effectiveness of parliamentary protocols – “When is the last time you had a useful discussion in parliament?!” – and would instead like to see more institutionalisation of learning and change management within parliaments.
Others suggested incorporating more ‘learning committees’ in parliament – i.e., committees that fulfil an exploratory and learning function rather than a law-making one as well as integrating new tools for a deeper understanding of complex societal problems, following in the steps of the National Dialogues used by the Finnish Ministry of Finance “not as a tool supposed to solve a problem, nor find a consensus, but to increase to the maximum our level of understanding of a societal problem.”
#3 | Gain a deeper understanding of what radical uncertainty actually means for political decision-making.
Policymaking in uncertainty requires the ability and courage to say, “I don’t know.”
While uncertainty is often conflated with risk, these two phenomena are actually very different from one another. While risk can be, to a certain degree of accuracy and with the appropriate tools, calculated, uncertainty is a property that eludes quantification – it simply cannot be measured. This distinction was discussed throughout the dialogue and resonated strongly among politicians.
Once such a distinction is recognised, it becomes clear that current decision-making strategies lack the necessary open processes, which invite exploration and creative thinking – both of which are key to building institutional resilience in the face of uncertainty.
Uncertainty cannot – it was argued – be addressed via data-based solutions but requires learning governments; although a difficult and disorienting stance, it requires a political class that can honestly embrace and communicate the limits of our knowledge. A specific idea shared during the dialogue on how to improve political decision-making by investing in instruments to boost political imagination was for parliaments to be subjected to impromptu crisis-management trainings on how to face scenarios presenting one-off singularities.
On the upside, uncertainty was also discussed as a positive: “What is possible is largely determined by our creativity.” Uncertainty could yield unexpected and welcome developments – suffice it to look, as it was argued, at Europe’s ability to rethink energy consumption and distribution as a reaction to the war against Ukraine. What was previously unimaginable became quickly possible.
“What did we learn from the last crises? That we have a lot more capacity for change than we have been expressing… and we have options.”
#4 | Look at the pace of change as the ethical question of our time.
Amidst the three days of discussion, a question started to emerge: What represents an ethical pace of change?
When it comes to political decision-makers’ positioning vis-à-vis innovative technologies, the pace of the engendered change is what ultimately seems to be the discerning criteria along which different approaches take form.
In times of high disruption, some argue that “we cannot change too fast, or we risk losing ourselves along the way – at these moments in time, there is also value in conservation.” Some politicians remark that regardless of the pace of evolution of the latest technologies, “we must apply some patience and start regulating once we understand the situation better. It has been the same, historically, with other important societal transformations. It may take some time, but that is how a democracy works”.
The most visible value tension uncovered during the dialogue was thus about what pace we wish to adopt while navigating towards the future – do we embrace innovation and its positive potential unabashedly, or do we take a more risk-averse stance, regulating the change and allow for a slower, and, for some, more responsible pace – avoiding, for example, placing too much of a disproportionate power over the makings of our society with democratically unaccountable, private companies?
Understanding that the issue is not black and white but a matter of what rhythm or pace of disruption policymakers see as most advisable could be an important way forward in re-framing our political debates around tech and society.
#5 | Address the difficult but fundamental relationship between politics and the private sector.
“When we look at Europe’s competitiveness in technology, we seem to be behind. We should be defining parliaments’ and governments’ positions on how we can support innovators, small and medium enterprises to be more competitive.”
A recurring topic of discussion was the yet untapped potential of seeking out positive synergies between political and public good needs and the large tech investments needed for Europe to remain a globally competitive actor in the tech and innovation field. For example, are there sectors, such as healthcare, where these synergies could be more evident? One idea to promote the creation of a valuable innovation ecosystem in Europe was to increase the occasions for multi-stakeholder dialogue between the political and private sectors outside of formal parliamentary proceedings, which, for many, “are not conducive to mutual understanding.”
This idea was further reinforced by what emerged as an evident mismatch between the way policymakers expect private companies to approach regulation and what is often the reality of companies, at least for small and medium-sized entities, which admit: “We don’t think much about regulation when we are developing new products unless we are forced to.”
The relationship between the private and public sectors remains, it seems, a thorny one.“An increasing number of tech companies have larger GDP’s than those of countries. […] The thing about private tech companies is that we are playing on their turf. Soon enough, instead of us thinking about how we regulate them, they’ll start thinking about how to regulate us.”
One idea that was discussed in the dialogue is to learn how to play smart rather than attempting to play catch-up. “What we need to do is set some standards of transparency and consumer protection – which may already exist – and demand that private companies ensure their products respect these conditions. We should responsibilise the developers, not run after the technology itself. We can look out for red lines being crossed and patterns of behaviour. We’ve done the same with lots of climate legislation.”
#6 | Create safe political dialogue spaces to navigate policy issues with ambiguous outcomes.
Policymakers at the dialogue recognised the importance and value of dialogue as a policymaking tool and a means to address political uncertainty.
In particular, they lingered on the deep need for safe spaces that allow for genuine exchange around complex challenges for which no clear solutions exist: “There are some issues that are better first discussed in a real working environment, a safe environment, with no judgment, just to put every possible argument on the table for the sake of really understanding what is at stake. […] It’s very, very important for politicians to have a safe space to say out loud what they think, receive feedback from their colleagues, without having to fear immediate public repercussions.”
In a similar vein, strengthening collaboration opportunities across parliaments, committees, and governance levels as a tool to break silos, bolster institutional learning, and increase the regulatory capacity of individual governing bodies was also welcomed: “We all share and experience the same problems. Better solutions can be found when we’re working together.”
In particular, the act of co-developing ideas, imagining actions, and testing arguments behind closed doors was recognised as an important driver for a renewed political culture able to encourage more creative solution-building while combating certain loneliness and harshness of the policymaking endeavour, which itself tends not to be conducive to better policymaking: “We all navigate complex realities in our countries. It is so good to know and remember each other from time to time that we are not alone. The strength of being a group is what I’ll take back home.”
#7 | Political leaders may need to be more positive about the future.
Along the course of the three days of intense exchanges, policymakers came to ask themselves: “How can we become future lovers?”
Particularly in a context where our society seems increasingly afraid of change and its potential and uncertain trajectories, this question takes on mounting importance. Embracing the future with a positive mindset was felt as an important shift for politicians to be able to envision and construct a way forward for our society that reflects our collective hopes and aspirations – and not only our societal hurdles and criticalities.
Political actors have been chosen by our electorates to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to defining our shared future.
The dialogue highlighted the need to reflect on how our political leaders can tap into a more proactive and positive attitude towards uncertainty and to what degree this openness to the future is a necessary political posture of our times.
One specific idea that was suggested as a tool to overcome the self-diagnosed electoral cycle myopia and encourage more future-loving attitudes in politicians was to use available tools to make future-scenario and future-thinking more fun – for example, integrating SciFi exercises into political trainings.
A specific insight that was shared regarding the need for politicians to reflect on the necessary role of emotions and empathy in their profession, especially as we are headed into a hyper-technological society, left its mark on the dialogue and its participants: “I am not sure the future will be governed by empathy. But still, we have our humanity, and humanity matters. It is very dangerous to rely too much on AI’s rationality and allow it to make decisions for us. […] I believe we don’t put enough emotion into our own work – we act too much as managers, but if we forget about emotions, we forget a big part of politics. As politicians, we should work to switch on our feelings.”
Note: all non-ascribed quotes are derived from our 8th Open European Dialogue participants. The Open European Dialogue operates under the Chatham House Rule of non-attribution.