Transcript: Future of Democracy Series: Helping Governments Meet Future Challenges
[Text appears on screen that reads "Canada School of Public Service" "And University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy" "Present Future of Democracy Series" "Helping Governments Meet Future Challenges".]
Taki Sarantakis: Good morning, if you are joining us from the national capital region. Good afternoon or good evening, if you are joining us from other time zones in Canada or around the world. I'm Taki Sarantakis. I'm the President of the Canada School of Public Service and today, I'm very happy to be launching our latest event series.
This event series is of critical importance to all of us, not just as public servants but more profoundly as citizens and citizens of Canada, and of a country that is increasingly not immune from many of the global events that have been challenging democracy.
Our series is being brought to us in partnership with the Munk School at the University of Toronto, one of Canada's top educational institutions.
And we are going to hear from the leader of the Munk School, Professor Peter Loewen, who, in addition to being the head of the Munk School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, is also one of Canada's top academic practitioners.
He is going to give us a little bit of a lecture, it will be about half an hour, and then after that lecture, we are going to have Peter back and he will be joined by Professor Heidi Tworek who has a doctorate from Harvard University which means she is really, really smart, and she is also a professor at one of our other premiere institutions in Canada, the University of British Columbia.
So, democracy. What is democracy? Some of us think that democracy is about voting. Democracy and voting, yes, but that's just kind of one thing and if we limit ourselves to thinking that democracy equals voting, that means we have responsibilities about once every four or once every five years, but we all know that democracy is a lot more than that.
Democracy is about our institutions, whether they be schools, whether they be bank regulators, whether they be courts, whether they be police, whether they be like you, public servants.
But ultimately, democracy is also about citizens and having citizens that are informed, citizens that are engaged is absolutely critical to the future of democracy.
As Canadians, we've been pretty fortunate over the years. We've had the capacity to basically be a little bit isolated from some of the events in the world. We've been isolated by three oceans. We've been isolated by the fact that our border has been shared with a nation that's been mostly peaceful throughout its existence and hasn't tried to invade us since 1812. So, there are a lot of things that we have taken for granted.
But as we go forward now, we see things like COVID challenging democracy. We see things like climate change challenging democracy. We see things like energy and food insecurity challenging democracy.
And the question is, are our institutions strong enough to withstand those challenges, and more particularly for us as public servants, what's our role in making sure that those institutions are ready for the challenges that democracy, and Canadian democracy in particular, will face?
So, with that, I'm going to turn it over to Professor Peter Loewen. Enjoy his lecture and then after that, we will come back. We will be joined by Dr. Tworek as well as Dr. Loewen and we'll have a discussion.
And please, at that point, start firing some questions and through the magic of cyberspace, they will come to me and we will ask the panelists your questions as well.
Peter, over to you, my friend.
Peter Loewen: Thank you very much for joining me for this talk today. My name is Peter Loewen. I'm the Director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. I'm the Associate Director of the Schwartz Reisman Institute for Technology and Society, both at the University of Toronto.
And along with my colleague Ron Levy, it's been my pleasure to help organize this lecture series on the future of democracy, the future of democratic societies.
The question I want to explore today is a simple one but it's one for which there are not easy answers or for which the answers we might get are not easy to accept. The question is, "Can governments meet their future challenges?"
And to be short, governments have done very big things in the past. They've met the challenges of their moments. Indeed, in a little more than like 50 years, from the end of the 19th century through to the 1950s, governments in most Western countries developed extensive pension systems. They developed systems for social service provisions from income supports to health care. They developed full systems of public education, often all the way from K to 12 and often all the way up through university.
Now, none of these systems were perfect but they were sufficient to lift millions of people from constant insecurity and deprivation to lives of greater security and even lives of greater dignity.
Now, importantly, much of this information reform was driven as a response actually to great tragedies. Principal among them, the first two great wars, and they were driven by this belief that societies which could make war on a grand scale could also build better societies on such a grand scale.
In short, in the past, sometimes crises have created confidence for doing bigger and better things in the future, and there's more that governments have done.
Governments have built whole systems of immigration and effective integration of new citizens. They've developed complex and relatively effective systems of taxation across multiple sources of revenue.
And both of these things have been necessary for building up the successful modern states that we enjoy today.
Now, despite these successes, there are still large, even massive challenges that await governments in the not so distant future.
In the near term, there's the challenge of reigniting global trade and supply chains that service it in a wrestling inflation to the ground, and this is happening, of course, in the specter of reignited global conflict and the possible breakdown of the international liberal order.
In the medium term but not all that far from today are the challenges of adaptation to climate change which will cut across many aspects of daily life, and layered on this are two other mega challenges: the effects of rapidly aging populations across nearly all democratic countries, eventually leading to de-population rather than global overpopulation, and second, there's the serious challenges that are being posed to the legitimacy of the democratic liberal order. Indeed, much of this lecture series is concerned with the capacity of democratic states in the future.
Now, I can imagine a reasonable response to the question of whether governments can meet their future challenges. Of course, you might say, of course governments can do big things. After all, in the last two years, we've successfully contained a virus and the condition it causes, COVID-19. We've done it for an extended period of time. We've staved off a large number of deaths, we've devised income and business support programs which effectively saved cratering economies, and we, governments working with businesses and scientists, have designed, approved, produced, and distributed a vaccine globally within 18 months of the emergence of the virus, a remarkable record.
So, on the surface then, the answer to the question might well be yes, of course governments can do big things still, and so, yes, governments must be prepared to meet future challenges.
In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic, in my view, is exactly what we should use as a case study to consider the capacity of democratic governments to meet these future challenges.
So, to do that, I want to do the following. I want to present you with five different things which I think governments need to be able to do to tackle the biggest, most challenging problems of the future. Now, this list is not comprehensive but it's substantial, and some of the conditions may be necessary, some of them may be sufficient, but I think we all can agree that all these conditions are relevant.
And then, for each of these, I want to examine some evidence on how well governments have performed on these. I use the term governments broadly to describe that combination of elected officials, public servants, and the core of governments, those staffing associated agencies and everyone else who forms an ecosystem around them.
So, the goal then is to look at each of these five conditions and to get a sense of how well governments performed on them through the first two years of the pandemic, and to do that, I want to bring to bear data that colleagues and I have been collecting for the last two years, since the beginning of the pandemic in March of 2020.
And it's data about people's responses to COVID, their beliefs about it, what information they consume about it, there's data in there as well from social media that we'll bring to bear, but all of this is going to give us some insights into how well governments have performed across these five conditions.
And finally, I want to say a few words about how these conditions might apply to future challenges, in particular, climate change adaptation and the changing demographics of the world.
And then, I'll look forward to our discussion where we might take these things up in greater detail.
So, what do we need the governments to be able to meet the big challenges coming in the future? Well, here's a partial but a long list.
First, we need governments to be able to build and maintain political consensus.
Second, we need governments to be able to call upon scientific expertise which is properly practiced and communicated, and accompanying that, we need citizens to show proper deference to scientific expertise.
Third, we need support for the democratic institutions which carry out public policy.
Fourth, we need citizens to be sufficiently pro-social which is to say concerned for other people.
And fifth, we need to be able to properly develop and use technology and to encourage its uptake.
So, I want to unpack each of these and I want to talk about how we saw them unfold in the early days of COVID and since then. To consider these conditions, I want to bring to bear on them unique and original data that colleagues and I have collected throughout the pandemic.
As of January 2020, my colleagues and I in Pearl, this is my lab here at the University of Toronto, and with the Media Ecosystem Observatory which I co-directed with Taylor Owen from McGill, we've conducted more than 125,000 survey interviews of Canadian adults, over 50 waves of data.
And we've collected extensive data on their demographics, where they live, on a large battery of behavioural and attitudinal questions related to COVID, and also extensive information on their media consumption and their political preferences.
We've combined with this extensive information collected from social media, including all tweets on Canadian Twitter since March 2020, more than 40 million of them referenced COVID. We've collected all public Facebook posts and groups related to COVID, we've collected all Reddit content related to COVID, and we've collected and analyzed all print media on COVID in Canada during that time.
So, the first question we want to consider, the first condition we want to consider, is whether governments can build political consensus around the challenges that they're facing.
And the basic idea, the basic intention here is that governments, to deploy their attention and their resources on a problem for a sustained period of time, need to have agreement with citizens that that problem is a priority.
And that agreement, the more widely it's shared and the more deeply it's founded, enables governments to spend more attention and more time on some issue over another.
Have governments been able to build a political consensus around COVID? Well, the answer from the early days through to now, I think, is a resounding yes, in fact.
We wanted to understand whether there was broad political consensus around the priority of addressing the COVID pandemic from the beginning. So, something we did early on in March and April of 2020 is we looked at the search behaviour of individuals on the internet, using publicly-accessible Google data, and the basic idea here is the things that you're concerned about or you care about are things you search about on the internet, which is why the search for Christmas presents goes up in November or it's much lower in January, for example, or why, during flu season, searches around flu symptoms go up.
[A graph displaying internet search data is shown.]
But what did we find when we looked at people's search behaviour around COVID? Well, at the levels of individuals, we found that there was no relationship between how conservative a place was where someone lived or how liberal it was and how much they were concerned about COVID as demonstrated through their Google searches.
[Two graphs displaying internet search data are shown.]
Now, Canadians living in places that were more wealthy learned more about COVID early on, people living more urban places learned more about COVID early on, but even though we saw those differences, we saw no differences politically.
[A graph displaying politician social media data is shown.]
When we looked at what politicians were talking about on social media in the early days of the pandemic, what we found is that all of them shifted their focus remarkably towards COVID and they left it on COVID for a very long period of time, irrespective of their position on the political spectrum.
In the early days of the pandemic, politicians and citizens were lined up eye to eye on the priority of COVID. We went one step further to understand whether there was alignment with citizens and politicians about how they should respond to COVID from a policy perspective in the months after the virus emerged. We explored this later in a study that simultaneously engaged more than 11,000 citizens and 1,000 politicians at three levels of government. We conducted it between May and October of 2020.
And in this study, we compared the preferences of politicians and citizens on the trade-offs that they'd be willing to make to contain COVID.
So, how do you figure out what trade-offs people are willing to make? Well, what we did is we would present respondents with scenarios, two scenarios which had different mixes of closures which could be chosen and traded off against different levels of fatalities from COVID.
So, maybe in one mixture, schools were closed, and in another, they weren't, and they had different corresponding levels of fatalities.
Now, this is grim stuff, I recognize, but it's frankly exactly the kind of trade-offs that governments were being asked to make and which citizens were being asked to accept.
So, what did we find? Remarkably, we find that these multi-dimensional preferences of politicians were strikingly similar to those preferences of citizens. Indeed, when we look at them, we find that politicians and citizens agreed on whether cell phone tracking should be used, on whether there should be closures of businesses and government services, on the levels of income support the government should provide citizens, on limitations on social gatherings, and on the need for written permission to leave one's home which was a feature of some other countries and not Canada.
The only place we didn't find agreement was on the question of school closures, with politicians being less in favor of school closures than the general public. So, even here, politicians actually shared the views of parents.
So, there are two important things to note here, in my view. The first is that this alignment between politicians and citizens was shared with representatives across all three levels of government. So, it was very deep.
And the second is that the policy mixes that elicited the most agreement were those that mapped closely onto what was actually being done in Canada.
So, other countries took very different approaches to dealing with COVID. Some went with extreme lockdowns, some went with a very laissez-faire approach. We could debate the merits of these different approaches but what's clear here is that the approach taken in Canada, in the medium strokes at least, looked like the approach citizens wanted governments to take, and we take that as evidence of a sustained political consensus built and maintained across the country.
The second condition for success in meeting great challenges is the effective use and deploying of scientific expertise.
What's been remarkable about something in the COVID pandemic is that it's put at the forefront of our policy-making scientists and experts. We've had science tables communicating directly to the public what mixes of closures they're recommending, for example, we've had daily briefings on the evolution of the virus and of the kind of wider response to the pandemic, and in the early days of 2021, as we were rolling out the vaccine, we had a lot of communications about vaccine uptake.
What I want to do for this condition is just give you a few insights into what we've seen about how the public has responded to scientific expertise and scientific counsel given during the pandemic.
The first thing I want to talk about is the vaccine. If we go back 18 months to the start of the period when we were rolling out vaccines, you'll remember a couple of things about that period of time. One is that we had three, then four vaccines approved in Canada: Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson, and you may also remember that there was some debate and some public discussion around the comparative safety of those vaccines, in particular, AstraZeneca.
And my colleague Erik Merkley and I leveraged the fact that, in essence, expert advice changed around these vaccines and we use that to see citizens responses to it and to see whether citizens picked up on this information in ways that suggests that they know how to deal with scientific information or in ways that suggests that they don't know how to properly update their behaviour against scientific information.
[Three graphs displaying public perceptions on vaccines brands are shown.]
And the basic story is the following, that the willingness of Canadians to take AstraZeneca started out about ten percentage points lower than their willingness to take Pfizer, but within a couple of weeks of a communication about potential complications with AstraZeneca which actually pertain to an extremely small slice of the population, willingness to AstraZeneca, if offered, dropped to 65% of the population.
What effectively happened was that people's views on vaccines had been previously structured by concerns about efficacy, how well would the vaccine work, but for AstraZeneca, they increasingly became structured around questions of, is it safe to use.
And importantly, the people who took the message that AstraZeneca was not a safe vaccine to use were those who were older, those who were more likely to listen to scientific experts, those who thought COVID was a greater threat, those who were generally supportive of vaccines, those who followed the news about COVID, and those who intended to be vaccinated, which is to say that all people who defer to scientific expertise are the ones who took, in fact, the wrong message from that scientific communication around the safety of AstraZeneca.
And I take this, unfairly or not, or as good news or bad news, as an indication that we weren't very good at thinking about how to communicate safety and efficacy and concerns around vaccines to a public that was listening to scientific experts and wanted to take their cues from them.
There's a broader idea here which is one of anti-intellectualism or an aversion to expertise, and Eric Merkley and I have done deeper dives on this, and I'll just share a couple of other pieces of information about this with you.
In the early days of the pandemic, you may remember that we weren't masking, that, you know, the share of Canadians who reported wearing a mask in the last week, in the early days of the pandemic, that is up to about the middle of April, was only about 20% of people.
[A graph displaying data on mask usage and anti-intellectualism is shown.]
Then, official recommendations in favour of masks started to become public, and what happened? Well, those people who were low in anti-intellectualism or who were high in deference to scientific experts, they quadrupled the rate at which they were wearing masks within about six weeks, from 20% to 80%.
Those who are high in anti-intellectualism or low in trust in scientific experts only increased their mask usage from 20% of those people to 40% of those people. They increased them, of course, but not nearly as much as those who defer to experts.
And this was, in the early days, probably the single most effective way to protect yourself while moving about normal life as best possible.
[A graph displaying data on mask usage and political ideology is shown.]
Importantly, this difference in the willingness to take up masks wasn't a political issue at that point of time. When we look at how it relates to people's political preferences, there's no relationship over time.
But what there was was a group of Canadians, and this group exists in many places, a relatively small one but one which was not likely to defer to experts, and they reacted very differently to how things were communicated. Now, they did double their mask usage rate. They just didn't quadruple it. So, it's an important question as to what caused them to do it but it wasn't because there was deference to scientific expertise.
Now, this is a narrow way of looking at the role of science in the COVID pandemic. Of course, there are all these other ways that science was very effectively being deployed. People were pulled together from multiple disciplines to create science tables that gave good and fearless advice to public servants but in the interface between scientific expertise and citizens, there was some work to be done indeed.
The third condition for governments to meet big challenges is that they need to make sure that citizens continue to support the democratic institutions which are generating the answers and the solutions that they're putting forward.
And I want to present to you just two pieces of data that I think suggest that we did a pretty good job in COVID, actually, of maintaining support for democratic institutions, especially in the early days.
And the first is that as COVID rolled itself out or came into our consciousness, a better way of putting it, in March of 2020, colleagues and I were, in fact, in the field in several European countries, interviewing citizens in those countries, doing survey interviews about their views on any number of political issues.
And among other things, we asked some questions about whether they're satisfied with democracy, whether they had high trust in government, whether they supported their Prime Minister or the party that was in that was in power, very standard survey research stuff.
And a lot of our interviews happened just before "lockdowns" and a lot of them happened just after lockdowns, generating a natural experiment by which we could understand whether citizens seeing their governments put in place lockdowns increased or decreased support for political institutions
[A graph displaying data on satisfaction with government pandemic responses is shown.]
And what we found was that in those countries that engaged in a "lockdown" in March of 2020, there was greater satisfaction with democracy among citizens, greater trust in government, and greater support for the incumbent party.
And this, to us, is very good evidence of the fact that when governments take decisive action in the interests of citizens in the face of a grand challenge, they can actually build support not only for themselves, not only principally for themselves, but for their political institutions in which they're operating.
[A graph displaying data on satisfaction with provincial government pandemic responses is shown.]
The second piece of evidence in this is that if we just ask questions about the net approval of citizens or the approval of citizens of government's handling, not partisan handling but government's handling of the pandemic in Canada, all the way through to the middle of 2021, every government in Canada is more positively than negatively evaluated in its handling of the pandemic in Canada.
The amount of trust generated in government by citizens has been remarkably high over the last two years through the pandemic, suggesting that over the long term, not only in the first instance of lockdowns, over the long term of the pandemic, the concerted effort that governments have put and the attention to the concentration that they've put on COVID has generated support from citizens for the very institutions that are supporting those governments.
The fourth condition to meet grand challenges is really the one about citizens, and it's that to maintain- to effectively- excuse me, to effectively respond to grand challenges, we need citizens who are motivated not only by self-interest but by concerns for others.
Many of these challenges are social, and they require people to be willing to make sacrifices to others. They require a sense of community, of obligation, of togetherness. In short, they require what academics kind of fancily call pro-sociality.
And we've dug into this through two studies over the course of the pandemic. The first was a study which colleagues and I conducted in 13 countries, looking at people's preferences over who should be prioritized to receive a vaccine.
[A graph displaying data on vaccine allocation prioritization is shown.]
And this study was conducted at a period of time in which almost no one was being vaccinated in these 13 countries but vaccines were coming online, when people were figuratively rushing to get in line to get vaccines and everyone wanted one.
What we did is we asked citizens in all 13 of these countries, who do you think should be prioritized for a vaccine? We would present them with two individuals at once and they would vary according to age or to their income or to the type of work that they did, and what we found- to their susceptibility to disease, that is whether they're immunocompromised.
[Three graphs displaying data on vaccine allocation prioritization are shown.]
And what we found very encouragingly is that in all of these places that we looked, citizens were willing to prioritize not only the old, not only the elderly, and not only the immunocompromised but they were actually willing to go farther than governments did and prioritize those people working in service industries, people working in factories, people teaching in classrooms, people delivering help to the elderly, people delivering things to your home.
And the story there is that people, even in the midst of the pandemic when vaccines were first coming on were willing to put others ahead of themselves if they thought those people were more deserving.
[An excerpt of a report on government aid in the COVID-19 pandemic is shown.]
The second study around pro-sociality that we examined was one around income support during the pandemic, and the basic finding around income support, normally, is that citizens, when they think about who government should support with income, care a lot about deserving this.
And that's to say they care a lot about whether they think people have worked hard, whether they think people have been unlucky, whether they think people have had lower incomes.
But when we look at who people thought should be supported by COVID income supports, they took a much- Canadians had a much broader and much more generous sense of who should be captured by it.
People cared really only about the income of people at that moment, not how much money they had had before, and this is very different than other studies of income support taken outside of a pandemic context.
The takeaway here is that that pro-sociality that Canadians were showing, that willingness to sacrifice for the good of others didn't apply only to their willingness to forgo social interaction and to abide by social distancing and avoid gatherings and birthday parties and other things they would have liked to have been at, that didn't extend only to their willingness to prioritize some people for vaccines over others or over themselves, but it extended all the way down to their conception of who was deserving of government income support during the pandemic.
The final condition I want us to think about is the ability of government to effectively use technology to address a grand challenge.
Now, we have developed remarkable systems of technology in our society today. It's all centered effectively around communication tools like computers and phones. These have turned us into data-generating machines such that we are constantly creating data that says something about ourselves and says something about the world and the environments in which we operate. We've developed alongside this and we're constantly improving remarkably powerful tools for analytical insight into data.
But effectively using these for public interest requires two things. One is that people have to be willing to uptake technology for the public interest and they have to be willing to support the proper and ambitious use of data.
Now, did technology help us very much in the COVID case? Without being political about this because it's not a political question, it's simply a matter of matter of fact, it arguably did not do nearly as much as the kind of brute force work of doing lockdowns did.
We had a COVID Alert app, for example, which was not very widely taken up and which, in its design, prioritized privacy over a wider dissemination of information about exposure to the virus.
In the end, the app didn't generate enough uptake to be able to deliver the population level health benefits that we would have hoped it could deliver but why was that? Well, we examined this in research that was sponsored by the Schwartz Reisman Institute and the Rockefeller Foundation, and what we found is the following, is that the willingness of individuals to use the app was largely a function of two things.
The first was a belief that government could effectively use technology, and this is really citizens making a trade-off between whether they think government should have their data and what they think government can do with the data.
And the second was a belief not about government but a belief about others. It was about people's belief that others would also be willing to use- to let government use technology to try to solve a big problem.
[00:31:11 An graph displaying mobile app uptake is shown.]
What we effectively find is the following, is that among those who believe the government can use data and technology for good, the hypothetical uptake rate of an app, like an alert app, goes from about 40%, when people don't think that others are likely to use it, all the way up to about 80%, if others think that an equal number of people are also likely to use the app.
But that's conditional upon them believing the government can use that technology effectively.
On this measure then, more than any other within the pandemic, there was perhaps a failure of imagination and implementation.
The bottom line of all of this is that Canada, as a matter of objective data, has moved through the pandemic something better than average, and it's done this because it's built and maintained a political consensus because at least some citizens have been willing to follow expert counsel, because citizens were willing to think of others and not just of themselves, and because there was support for democratic institutions that was maintained throughout the pandemic.
On the technology scorecard, we performed perhaps a bit less well but all of this has not led to an all-star performance but one that puts us largely in the middle of the pack, and I think that this might suggest that in confronting big challenges, meeting these conditions is something close to just the bare minimum of what democratic societies have to do.
So, I thought I might just conclude then with four thoughts about future challenges and about the kind of application of these conditions of future challenges, and then I look forward to our discussion about them.
The first is the future challenges are scientific and natural as much as they're social.
Let me explain this to you, for example, with climate change. So, climate change is really an existential challenge but it's not immediately obvious that it is nor are the solutions. To be exercised by climate change, one has to believe scientific claims about future. That's different than the creation of a system of health care or a system of pensions or a system of income support which addresses problems that are largely in front of people right in that moment.
So, fundamental to addressing some of these future challenges which are much more rooted in science than our previous challenges, fundamental to that is maintaining a trusted expertise around the nature of the problem and its solutions.
Second, these future challenges that we're facing are all intersecting: migration pressures, climate change, an eroding working population base, some of these are going to take the pressure off of each other.
A declining population actually takes some of the pressure off climate, thankfully, it'll take some migration pressure off, but other problems will actually amplify each other in very challenging ways.
Third, the organizations that we're building in this world are becoming more complex, larger, and harder to manage, and it's not clear that this is a benefit to the public sector where trying to just manage large organizations itself takes up time and where time spent internally is not time spent externally.
That's a fancy way of saying that it's a really good question whether government is at the right size and at the right format to address these future challenges.
And fourth, the stakes have never been higher because the future of democratic societies, in large part, depends on their capacity to outperform non-democracies on these future challenges.
Thanks very much.
Taki Sarantakis: Alright, thank you so much. Peter, that was a mouthful.
So, a lot there to absorb, a lot for us to think about, and a lot for us to discuss over roughly the next 45, 50 minutes or so.
So, we have about a thousand people on the line today and so that kind of gives you a little bit of a sense of kind of the importance that people are feeling about this topic.
We're going to bring now Dr. Heidi Tworek into the discussion. As I mentioned at the beginning, she is a professor at the University of British Columbia and she has an expertise in international relations.
So, much of what Peter talked about over the course of his discussion was Canadian bound, although obviously has a lot of linkages to what's happening in the rest of the world.
Heidi, we'll maybe- and sorry, I know Peter very well so I call Peter, Peter. Professor Tworek, is it okay if I call you Heidi for the next 55 minutes even though we've just met?
Heidi Tworek: Of course.
Taki Sarantakis: Wonderful. Thank you. So, Heidi will talk about some of what Peter has discussed in the context of the rest of the world. Then, as I mentioned earlier, please start sending us questions and they'll come to us and we'll aggregate them kind of behind the scenes and start asking some of your more popular questions. In the interim, I will try my best to keep the discussion going until you get your questions going.
And Heidi, over to you. In addition to kind of being a professor at the University of British Columbia, speaking of international relations, you are actually joining us from Washington, D.C. today.
So, give us some of your initial thoughts on kind of what Peter said but maybe give us, like, a bit of an international tilt or an international lens on some of those topics.
Heidi Tworek: Sure, I'd be happy to, and thanks so much for having me to react to this incredibly useful, I think, lecture by Peter that lays out for us, very clearly, some of the ways that we need to think about learning from the COVID-19 pandemic for Canada specifically.
So, in the first months of COVID-19, I had already, prior to the pandemic, been working on the question of communications during pandemics, both as a historical question and as a contemporary policy one.
And as somebody who works on international affairs, I set out with a team to look at the COVID communications during the first six months of COVID in nine democracies around the world because we were really concerned with the question of what did it look like to have democratic health communications during COVID?
So, we looked at Canada and then we- at the federal level, then we looked at B.C. and Ontario. We looked at Senegal, New Zealand, Taiwan, South Korea, Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, so a whole range of different democracies around the world.
And I think one of the most important points that I would underline here is that I think it's very important for Canada, both at this moment and looking forward, to gain an international understanding of what other countries, particularly democracies, did during COVID and how they were able to communicate because there's plenty for Canada to learn from those other countries, I'd say particularly places like New Zealand, Taiwan, and South Korea.
So, I'll just lay out a couple of those lessons that were obviously particular to COVID at that moment but I think equally apply to things like climate change as well.
So, with this team, we looked at original documents in all of these different languages to really get a sense of how COVID has been communicated and what were the general responses of the population, and we came up with what we called the five rapid principles of how you can communicate around a pandemic.
So, the first, R, was relying on autonomy, not orders.
A lockdown in many cases was unfortunately a sign of failure, a sign that a government didn't prepare enough in advance to communicate to citizens how to keep themselves as safe as possible, so relying on autonomy as far as one could, trying to avoid lockdowns and communicating that citizens how to keep themselves safe, something that we saw, for example, in a lot of British Columbia's initial communications around the pandemic too.
The second, A, was attending to emotions and values alongside purely scientific information.
So, we saw, for example, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, getting on Facebook lives and bringing in a whole host of people to talk about not just what people should be doing but how they might be feeling about it and that was a way of keeping people on board, communicating, as Peter said, that kind of pro-social types of emotions.
The third, P, was pulling in citizens in civil society, knowing how you could reach potentially citizens who were quite skeptical of government by bringing in the sorts of people that they would listen to.
So, in the case of Senegal, for example, which is quite a religious country, 95% Muslim, the government, from the very beginning, made sure to include imams and also priests for the 5% of the country who are Christian to show them taking all sorts of precautions around COVID because they knew that government communications alone wouldn't be enough to draw people in, but they had those networks prepared in advance. They knew who were the people in communities they needed to bring in.
The fourth, the I, was to institutionalize communications, to make sure that you had enough people who were there to communicate in the first place.
And this is something we saw particularly in places like Taiwan and South Korea. So, they had both had very recent experiences of pandemics whether in the early 2000s, SARS1 with Taiwan, or in 2015, a MERS outbreak in South Korea.
And in both cases, things didn't go particularly well for either of those countries, rumours flying around everywhere, poor compliance with regulations, and so after those crises, both of those countries and jurisdictions took a hard look at what they had had in terms of health preparation and they completely reformed their institutions around pandemic.
That included really embedding communications as a key part of what had to happen during pandemics. So, that meant that when COVID came, there was already a large number of people who were ready to communicate on as many channels as possible, and they were prepared in a way that many other countries were not necessarily because they didn't have that big stable of people ready to communicate around the pandemic.
So, one of the reasons there was such high compliance on things like masks, for example, had very little to do with the culture of masking and much more to do with these impressive institutions of communication. So, I think there's a lot to learn there from the way that those institutions were reformed, things for countries like Canada to think about into the future.
And the five, the D of rapid, was to think about how to communicate democratically around what was happening.
So, we saw even a very careful use of metaphors. So, in South Korea, for example, the President would talk about this as something that was a relay race, you had to keep going and you had to pass the baton on to the next citizen. Jacinda Ardern would talk about a team of five million. So, all of those communications to try to get that pro-social element that Peter highlighted in his lecture.
So, I think what we try to do in this report is draw out all of those lessons about exactly what it meant to have democratic health communications and then suggest some of the ways that countries like Canada could embed those lessons. So, I think some of that has happened in Canada, some of it could potentially continue to happen in the future, and there's certainly lessons we could draw out for other challenges like climate change as well.
Taki Sarantakis: Absolutely. Thank you, Heidi.
And so, Heidi, you mentioned five principles. I think Peter had five conditions. So, obviously in academia, you work in fives. In the public service, we work in threes because we're not as smart as you guys and those last two things are really hard for us. So, in terms of threes, if I had to take kind of Peter's discussion and wrap it down in the threes. I would do it like this.
So, I would say number one is trust, number two is capability, and number three is legitimacy.
And I want to kind of maybe explore with you a little bit of each of those. So, maybe talk to us a little bit about trust because it seems to me that with democracy kind of- I don't want to call it in peril but with democracy having its challenges around the globe, part of that challenge is a challenge of trust which is to say, are the people who are in our institutions, who are running our institutions, are our very institutions, can I trust them? Like, are they working for us, the population, the citizens, or are they working for themselves, the system? Or- like, what is it that they're working for?
So, maybe if you could start us off with a few kind of thoughts on trust in democracy and how critical trust is to the democratic process.
Heidi Tworek: Yeah, I'm glad you've picked out trust because actually, there have been some studies that seem to indicate the higher trust that citizens had in their governments, the more compliant they were with COVID regulations, even the better those countries fared in general because the kinds of things that they could expect their citizens to do were perhaps things more of citizens actually were willing to do. So, that kind of matching that Peter talked about tends to be higher in countries with a lot of trust.
But then, the question is how do we build and maintain that? For me, one of the extreme good news stories of COVID is that we had been talking about deficits of trust for a very long time. You could see and survey since the seventies that there had been strong declines in trust in governments and democratic institutions and yet, when COVID hit, extraordinary levels of compliance, even in places we might not have expected that, the United States as well. If you look at the initial surveys and things like March, April, May of 2020, extraordinary interest in trying to protect other citizens, figuring out what this disease about and what people should be doing.
So, I think it tells us that actually, in a crisis, at least in this past crisis, there was still a very high level of trust in government.
And there was also a very high level of trust in more traditional media. So, we saw that in the first few months of the pandemic, in many countries, media consumption of more traditional media, radio, TV, etc., increased quite dramatically. So, when people were really trying to figure out where do I go for trustworthy news, they did not necessarily just go to social media.
So, I think all of that tells us that there is actually more of a latent trust than some of the surveys would have led us to believe. The question is how to maintain that trust over the course of a long pandemic, huge challenge for basically every country.
And the other is how to create and rebuild that trust if some feel it has been broken, and I think there are a couple of things that can be done there. One is transparency, trying to have as much transparency as possible. The second is admitting when you make mistakes. We actually saw in Norway, in one of our examples, when the Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, actually apologized for a lockdown in Norway and said, you know, now we've realized the lockdown wasn't actually necessary, I apologize for that, here's what we'll be doing moving forward, that actually increased trust, it didn't decrease.
And we saw a lot of governments that weren't necessarily willing to admit mistakes and explain how they would learn from them.
And I think the third was being able to communicate around uncertainty, and scientific uncertainty proved to be a huge challenge for many, many governments.
And so, it often led to accusations of flip-flopping and decrease in trust when circumstance seemed to change, advice seemed to change, and we didn't have a good enough, what I call, meta-framework around explaining how science works.
So, I'll just explain how one could have theoretically done this, is to say at the beginning, "This is a novel coronavirus, what that means is there is a huge amount that we don't know. The good news is the best scientists in the world and basically everyone is working on this question so we will give you guidelines, but what we know for sure is that those guidelines will change and when they change, that will be a good thing because it means we know more about this disease and how to protect you and how can you protect each other."
And so at the moment, when guidelines were changed, you were trying to hammer home, we have some uncertainty, the good news is that a lot of people working on this, things are going to change, and when they do, it's good, and that may have, at least for some people, prevented some of that feeling that the governments didn't know what they were doing.
So, I think those would be some of the things that I think we could think about in order to increase trust.
And obviously, Peter mentioned scientists and expert advice, and we could talk later perhaps about some of the problems of online abuse of health communicators which I've looked into, which I think is another trust problem as well.
Taki Sarantakis: So, before- I'm going to turn to Peter in a moment and I'm going to ask him about the second of my theories which is legitimacy. So, Peter, you're on notice that you're answering number two.
But Heidi, before we leave trust, you mentioned something really interesting. You said that transparency and trust kind of go together but many political systems, be they democratic or authoritarian or what have you- transparency is often scary, like as governments- many governments around the world aren't used to kind of, you know, pulling the curtain over The Wizard of Oz or- and letting people look inside.
And you seem to suggest that admitting that you don't know everything, admitting that, you know, the scientists don't know everything, that the officials don't know any- everything, that our institutions don't necessarily know everything, you're suggesting that that actually increases rather than decreases trust. Did I get that properly?
Heidi Tworek: Yeah. So, basically, the key is to create a kind of framework in which people understand what do you know and don't know but also how are you seeking to address that.
So, I think just saying we don't know and throwing our hands up is obviously not going to increase trust in any way but if there's a clear sense of here's what we do and don't know, here are the steps that we are taking to address that, the reason that can be helpful is because, particularly in the first months of the pandemic as governments and scientists and so on were really trying to figure out exactly how is this pandemic being spread, what are we going to do, what are the best measures, there were going to be, inevitably, changes.
And it became a problem, once you had accusations of flip-flopping, to try to get people on board, and a somewhat different framework as an approach of what we do and don't know and admitting mistakes are some ways of potentially trying to increase trust.
And the other question, I think, about transparency is the question of what types of data are available and what you wish to make available, and I think there's a case for, again, looking at different democracies and seeing the different approaches that they took and what citizens were willing to take.
There is a lot of contextual specificity here because in South Korea, for example, the trade-off was quite a severe lack of privacy, something that I suspect Canadians would not have been willing to accept but the trade-off was having a much better sense of where COVID was and so on and so forth, but that's probably not a trade off that I think many Canadians would have been willing to accept, given what Peter's data tells us.
Taki Sarantakis: Yeah.
Heidi Tworek: So, that's what I mean by trying to figure out what level of transparency is appropriate in your particular context.
And I say the other thing that goes along with it though is the ability of different levels of government to actually collect that data and make it consumable in ways that are appropriate to publics.
We've seen, for example, the Financial Times doing an incredible job. Our World in Data is another example of a website, run out of Oxford University, that doesn't just have COVID data, all types of different data and it's incredibly useful, very easy to use.
And those are the sorts of things that that can increase transparency just in terms of the amount of data, so people have a sense of not just what's going on with the pandemic but more what's going on with Canada in general and that can potentially help to increase trust, for example, in the types of policies that governments are actually pursuing.
And I think just one final thing, which is- to build on Peter's data, which is that often, citizens don't know that many other citizens agree with them. So, sometimes, for example, citizens might think, well, do other people still want to wear a mask, and they will be likely to wear a mask if they think others want to wear a mask.
It goes along with Peter's point about people are likely to share their data if they think other people are likely to share their data.
And so, being more transparent about those sorts of things can be very helpful. It actually encourages that pro-social behavior. If I know that other people are willing to sacrifice for the elderly, the vulnerable, etc., I'm more likely to want to do it as well. So, that's an increase of trust in your fellow citizens which, I would add, is another element of trust.
Taki Sarantakis: Thank you, Heidi. So, now, Peter, I want to throw back to you and talk about kind of my second point which is very closely related to trust but it's- it is differentiated, it is slightly different, and that's the legitimacy.
And we've been talking a lot about COVID during the course of this and I think that's because COVID so wonderfully brings up all of these democratic issues, but hopefully, COVID is more in our rear view mirror than it is in our windshield, hopefully, but we know that there are other things ahead of us. We know- energy crisis, food crisis, aging, you know, misinformation, like a lot of the things that you talked about during the course of your presentation.
It seems to me that democratic institutions are going to need to- I don't know if it's a reframe or kind of re-legitimize their selves which is to say, how do we decide about climate change? There are going to be winners and losers. How do we decide about food insecurity or energy insecurity or aging?
All of these things, public policy will either make something go faster or will make something go slower or will stop something or generate something but it will create a group of people who benefit and a group of people who lose.
So, talk to us a little bit about legitimacy in democracy.
Peter Loewen: Thanks very much. It's a great question and I think that COVID is an interesting illustration of it in a couple of ways. I'll just say before that that it's great to be here with Heidi and just to learn so much from hearing you.
So, what's interesting about COVID for me is the following, that I think there's actually- whatever is written down in legislation and whatever our constitution allows and does not allow for whatever the common law allows and does not allow for, there is an understanding implicitly between citizens- I'm going to sneeze- excuse me, between citizens and government, about what government can legitimately engage itself in, which areas it can operate in and which areas it cannot operate in.
And I think that what we saw over the course of COVID was governments stretching that common understanding of what they could do legitimately.
Let me give you an example, and it's important because it's a comparatively instructive example. In May of- in the spring of 2021 when we were facing another pretty severe wave of COVID in Ontario, you may recall that the Ontario government suggested that it would engage in- it wanted people to stay at home and to stay within a certain radius of their home. That's okay, that works.
But then it wanted to give police the capacity to actually check on whether people were outside of that radius of their home, and that was- was it constitutional or not? We actually don't know. People can argue about it. We don't know because it wasn't tested, but it certainly seemed to be legitimate for the government legally to suggest that police officers could do that.
I myself recall getting pulled over for driving too fast in Prince Edward County, I don't live there, on the May long weekend of 2021, having a police officer say, you know, you're not supposed to be this far away from your home, but she wasn't going to act on that, and there was, you know, you could tell in the tension of that conversation, a little bit of the uncertainty about what would be legitimate and illegitimate.
So, you know, for most Ontarians, that action was too far. There was too much pushback on that. It wasn't reasonable, but beyond the reasonableness of it, people, I think, implicitly thought or explicitly stated that it was too much of a reach of government action, that the government didn't have a legitimate basis for doing that.
So, I raised that example because COVID has brought up those issues again and again and again.
The application of vaccination requirements to get on a plane, for example, you know, many people feel that's a legitimately illegitimate action by government. So, it's not just that they don't like it, they feel like governments are overstepping what the population has allowed them to do.
That's fundamentally a political point. For those who want to argue that it's a legal point, they're missing the reality on the ground which is that this is a political disagreement about what people believe government should or shouldn't be able to do.
Now, I think that this is really relevant because for governments to bring to bear all of the capacity they may have with behavioural tools, with changes, with smart regulations, with changes around how we monitor the use of energy, for example, in driving cars or in your home and all those things, those are going to test, not principally legal limits, they'll test technological limits of government, but they'll test limits of legitimacy.
And I think that, to tie this back to what Heidi was saying, which was just so helpful, you know, when we think about government trust, it is true that citizens invested a lot of trust in governments over the course of the pandemic but did governments invest trust in citizens, and was the language of how they were talking to citizens one of trust?
And I would submit that in Canada, it wasn't. It's not that they didn't trust citizens but the language was around the kind of things Heidi was talking about, care for others, moralizing language around masks, right, around other behaviours, rather than a sort of trusting conversation which is to say, "Taki, I want to bring you in to the knowledge that we have right now. I want to tell you what we think is happening with COVID. I want to tell you why I need you to change your following- your behavior in the following ways for the next two weeks, and here's what I expect to have happen and if that doesn't happen, I will come back to you and I trust that you will engage in the conversation with me about what we can do next."
We- you know, we- governments, they may have implicitly trusted citizens, but they didn't talk in that language and I think that, you know, for all of that discussion of trust in government, we have to talk about governments' trust in citizens and the more we can frame things in that way, the better it will be, I think, for our ability to do things collectively.
But the rub there, right, is going to be that governments have to know what citizens think is legitimate and illegitimate, right?
And they have to really recognize that their legitimacy is not legal, it is political.
Taki Sarantakis: Absolutely, and it's not, as you said, kind of a binary- democracy is a feedback system, it's like government doing this, citizens reacting, interacting, and it's not just about kind of government dictating or government throwing, you know, thunderbolts or institutions telling you thou shalt or thou shalt not, because at the end of the day, there are things like legality, there are social norms, there are principles. There are all kinds of constraints on government.
Peter Loewen: Can I just say one more thing.
Taki Sarantakis: Go ahead.
Peter Loewen: Briefly about this, which is that- maybe I don't say anything briefly but I'll say one thing about it which is that, to the degree that citizens monitor government performance, that matters for trust, you trust the government can actually do what says it's going to do, but it matters for legitimacy as well. Like, do I actually just think you're any good at what you do? Like, do I think you should be in this field? Right?
And if I see that-
Taki Sarantakis: Peter, that's my next question actually.
Peter Loewen: Take it away.
Taki Sarantakis: So, I'm going to chop you off and I'm going to go to Heidi but then I'm going to come back to you on this.
So, the third one for me was capability which is what I think you are indirectly saying.
It seems to me that if you are a government and you are a legitimate government, and by this, I don't mean like partisan government, I mean the institution of government, police, education, nurses, hospitals, scientists, universities, public service, etc., it seems to me that that implies that you have to have some kind of capabilities. You have to be able to do certain things and you have to be able to prevent certain things.
I think in some ways, in the last, I don't know, ten years, last 15 years, I think people think that kind of the basic capabilities of the administrative state have started to erode, and what I mean by that is if you kind of compare us with some other entities kind of outside of government, whether they're, you know, the high tech giants, whether they're Costco, whether they are entities that we interact with outside of how we interact with the state, those entities have capabilities.
Those entities know how to stock shelves. Those entities know how to get something from the middle of nowhere to my front porch in, I don't know, 10 minutes, it seems like.
Talk to us a little bit, Heidi, about capability in democracy, about what is it that the state should, can be able to- does it matter if the state is capable, I guess, is one way of putting it.
Tworek: Yeah, that's a good question. I mean, of course, people interact with the state in many, many different ways and sometimes they don't even know they're interacting with the state, right. When I- when people drive on a road, they think about the role of the state, to just give one example.
So, one of the reasons that companies can deliver things so swiftly has a lot to do with the infrastructure the state provides, I just say as an aside that often I think people don't realize, the role of the state in many aspects of their lives.
But then there's the question of the moments when they do know that they're interacting with the state, and in some cases, it performed remarkably well in the first weeks of the pandemic, if we think about the CERB. If you'd probably asked people in the government in 2019 would the CERB be possible, would they have said yes? Would they have said the government had that capability? My suspicion is varied responses, let's just put it that way, and yet it was possible.
And so, I think the question is, in a way, just like with the surprise that actually, citizens really did trust governments more than many people thought they did, and they wanted governments to go in many cases, I think, further than many people might have thought they did, is what are the capabilities that actually exist versus what we believe exists?
And I would submit that, actually, there were probably many things that can be done if presented with challenges. We just need the imagination to think about them.
But I would say the other is this question of state bureaucratic capability, is obviously one that's very top of mind at the moment, and thinking about what can be learned from the tech industry in terms of how they manage bureaucracy is certainly something to think about. It doesn't mean adopting the way that platforms and tech companies do things but certainly thinking about how one can manage a bureaucracy.
And there are some parts of it that run faster in Canada than other countries and some are perhaps less, but I think there are many lessons to be learned from other democracies as well.
And I've highlighted East Asian democracies because I think they've done some very interesting things over the last few years but so too places in Scandinavia, for example, thinking about reforms to the health care system.
So, it's sort of my- I guess my plea for today. My overall plea is there are many democracies doing very interesting things to reform their democratic institutions and think about how they become capable, legitimate, and trustworthy for the 21st century, and it behooves us to look at them and learn from them as well as looking at Europe and South to the neighbours below the border where I'm currently sitting. I think there are other democracies from which we can learn a great deal on the three points that you've highlighted.
Now, Peter, we're going to go to questions in a moment but I want you to give us some of your thoughts about kind of administrative capacity or state capacity and democracy, because a lot of what you talked about in the course of your presentation, really, it entails capacity.
And, you know, whether you're left, right, yellow, blue, red, orange, purple, whatever kind of the partisan affiliation, people elect you to do something or people elect you to stop doing something, and you would expect that when those legitimately elected officials turn to the administrative state and say, do this, don't do that, that that will get done.
Talk to us a little bit about that.
Peter Loewen: Yeah, I think I'll use a pertinent example and then talk about the general principle.
But if your argument about passports, for example, is- if your argument is, look, we just- we're screwing up right now, we just can't deliver these things fast enough, we have too people coming to get them, we're understaffed, we're going to try and fix it but we're sorry we're screwing up, that's a legitimate answer.
If your answer is, well, it's not clear if the passports are a right or a privilege and two months seems reasonable, when, as you say, I can order whatever I want to my house in a matter of days, if not hours, from some places, citizens are not going to listen to a long dissertation about how government is fundamentally different than the private sector in delivering things.
So, I think, you know, fundamentally, I think students- citizens are looking at governments and see how they're performing on the small things they want them to perform on right now, right?
And we have to really- like, we have to take people where they are and they have a limited number of interactions with government, and if those interactions are characterized by waiting for two weeks to get a letter so you can then sign back into your CRA because you forgot your password a few times or it's not being able to get a passport or it's, you know, not knowing what- you know, having clear communications around your kids' schooling and the start of schooling, all these little things, they all add up to the sense that this system isn't working, and for most citizens, they regard it as an expensive system.
So, I think that that is actually- it really does matter at the level of capability.
Now, I think we have to recognize that there is a mismatch in our country between what citizens expect of government, how we structure government, how we're financing it, how many things we expect it to deliver, and all of that, of course, is complicated by the fact that we don't have a simple system of government with one or two levels. In fact, we've got three levels or we've got multiple orders of government and some of which are not really well empowered to do the things that we expect them to do.
But my own sense of this is that governments, you know, range of actions to- governments can engage in to deal with future problems is getting more and more constrained by the year because these things are going to be more and more and more about- in the end, about capacity. They're going to be about capacity in the end, right?
If we want to get to a system, for example, where we decide that we will charge people on a per mile basis for driving their vehicles as opposed to, you know, using other crude measures to try to make people pay for the cost of using roadways, that is going to be, I think, an exceedingly difficult thing for our governments to do because it's got multiple points at which you actually have to have a public administrative structure in place to deal with it, and it has to be right the whole way through.
You know, and there's all sorts of other things, right? Like, health care is obviously at the top of that list but at the end, you know, we can build on the kind of trust that we've talked about coming up in COVID and we can try to extend the legitimacy of government through, you know, the political work that that requires.
But I do think that capability, as you've put it very nicely, is really the necessary condition for all of this coming to fruition in dealing with future challenges.
Taki Sarantakis: So, now- thank you, Peter.
So, our questions have started to come in and I've got a few that have been aggregated for me from our team behind the scenes.
So, I want to give each of you a chance to talk about this because it's really important and we often don't talk about it openly. It's kind of like this- it's- almost seems like a secret or it's something that, you know, we shouldn't be talking about, and that's lobbying.
So, a whole bunch of people in the audience have basically written variants of kind of the following, so, "Much of our democratic system seems to be dominated by special interests and lobbying groups. It doesn't seem that- independent of special interests and lobbying, that you can actually get anything done in a democracy."
Maybe, Heidi, maybe speak to us a little bit about kind of your thoughts in general about that and maybe also give us a little bit of an international context.
We know that, you know, money plays a different role in various political systems. I can tell you we study Washington a lot and, boy, if you think special interests have a role in like our democracy, holy moly, like, just go where Heidi is.
So, maybe, Heidi, start us off, and for those of you who are tuning in late, Heidi's actually in Washington today, not in Vancouver. So, we didn't say that.
So, Heidi and then Peter.
Heidi Tworek: Yes, I'm in D.C., not B.C.
So, obviously, lobbying plays a role in multiple democracies, also in the European Union or the European Parliament and European Commission level. It's also something that that plays a role- and in fact, I'll just put in a plug for a project that has been funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council I'm part of, which is actually going to be looking at the question of tech lobbying in Canada.
And this- you know, this is an example where it's sometimes hard to give an answer to some of these questions, and one of the things that this project is actually doing is handing in Freedom of Information requests to try to understand how often are the major tech companies actually meeting with various offices and ministries of the Canadian government and trying to, as far as possible, get a bit of a sense of what's being discussed, so that we can really answer, a little bit more clearly, these questions about the role of lobbying and special interests, in this case, in the tech industry and its influence on various types of legislation around that.
So, I think it is, obviously, a major part of what governments consider but it's also, in part, legitimate to ask companies and to understand how they operate as you try regulate them.
I think it's a question, again, for citizens and citizens' trust, to figure out, is this something where more transparency is necessary?
So, the most extreme version of transparency would be complete transparency and that's what we see, for example, with the Digital Minister, Audrey Tang in Taiwan, whose every meeting is open, and so you know who Tang is meeting with, what is being discussed, and that's the most- as I say, the cleanest version of transparency is total transparency but there are very few democracies that that go that far.
But I think that is one, at least, thing to think about, how far would it increase citizens' trust if there were greater transparency around those sorts of issues? What is the appropriate amount of transparency for Canada?
But there's certainly further levels that one could go to that other democracies employ, and I at least throw that out there as an example that's worth considering.
Taki Sarantakis: Peter, what are your thoughts about lobbying and democracy and the notion that you have to kind of play within a structure to get something done as opposed to being a citizen which is, you know, me, somebody who voted, who, you know, cares about something for my child or for my school district.
Peter Loewen: So, this is one of those issues where it really depends on the angle that you come at it from.
So, at the level of transparency, I'll just say that I think things are getting better, not worse in Canada. You know, we've- we're doing a better job of maintaining and, you know, using, as a disciplinary tool, lobbyist registries. We've done a better job of limiting the role of money in politics by limiting the size of donations that could be made to our political parties. I think on balance, that is for the good.
There's an unfortunate nexus between those two things though that I do think the political economy of what's happening increasingly is that lobbyists who have eventual roles in campaigns are able to leverage those roles in campaigns for lobbying contracts before or after elections, and in fact, corporations, in fact, are using lobby payments as a way to, in a sense, make contributions to different teams, but we could sort that out over time.
But on the transparency side, I think we're doing a bit better and I think we have to acknowledge, as Heidi has, that lobbying can play an important role in the development of better policy.
But there are a few kind of political economic considerations here as we think about the future and how we want to deal with this.
One is the following question, what's more likely to get captured by lobbies, big issues that are talked about in the open and negotiated politically or increasingly small, targeted matters of legislation meant to appeal to increasingly, thinly sliced portions of the electorate or the population?
The way I've set up the question, you know, what my answer is, right? That, you know, there was lobbying around Meech Lake, there was lobbying Charlottetown, God knows there was lobbying around the GST, but those were great big issues done out in the open and argued out in the open, and they were the subject of political debate.
So, politics is, in some sense, an antidote to lobbying. The more you're willing to fight these things out in the public and put them into the public domain as contested issues, the less likely they are to be captured by those who only have a small, narrow interest in that, and we should recognize that politics is the reconciliation of difference.
I think there's another consideration though, Taki, which is the following, is that I have the sense that as legislation becomes more complex, that it almost logically necessarily becomes more complex as you're layering legislation on legislation, and as we rely increasingly on more and more narrowly defined ministries, the less we are actually thinking about policy that reaches across things.
And I think that we're actually getting to a place where- you know, in the next ten or 20 years, where with advances in A.I. and with machine-learning and with data availability, if we're willing to leverage that, we can actually understand policy at a much more complex level. We can evaluate it at a much more organic level and much closer to a system level.
There's a great paper that came out just a couple weeks ago on machine-learning, what policies work for reducing climate emissions, and I think we can really get to the place where we think about policy much more- in a much more overarching way and not just allowing it to be happening in competing ministries.
If we can do that, I think that can actually limit the role of lobbies because they have to come up against the data at that point, not come up against a particular legal argument.
I can expand on this but I think that we're getting to a place where we may actually be at a new frontier of evaluating how policy should be designed and then we can have lobbies arguing against things that are more demonstrably optimal, you know, things that we know will work. Whereas now, you know, we have a lot less certainty about what policies will work, so we let lobbies fill in the gaps.
Taki Sarantakis: So, Peter, indirectly, you've kind of introduced our next question from the audience and the question is kind of a variance of the following.
"So, Professor Loewen talked a lot about experts during the course of his presentation, but isn't democracy about what people want as opposed to what experts are telling us?"
So maybe I'll let you start off on that, Peter, and then Heidi, we'll come back to you because this is a really interesting question, because if you take it just at the kind of the logical wordplay as opposed to the real life, you can say, well, why do we even have democracy if we have experts that- you know, you just listen to, you know, your expert in medicine and your expert in law and your expert in accounting and your expert in child education and your expert in old age aging. That said, why do we even have democracy?
So, Peter, starting- start us off please.
Loewen: So, this is like putting coins in a machine. So, I'm going to make a claim here and I'd love to hear Heidi's response to it, that, for me, one of the worst things that happened in the pandemic, from the perspective of politics, was there were periods- not through the whole thing but there were periods in which politicians stood in front of voters and said, the science says that we have to do the following, I'm just doing what the science is telling me to do.
And the reason why I think that was a very, very bad state of affairs is the following, that scientific expertise actually didn't know what we should do, in some ways. We had best guesses but it didn't know the best thing to do, but it also didn't contemplate trade-offs in the way that politicians are asked to make them in our system.
Scientists see slivers of the moon, politicians are meant to see the whole of the moon. Their job is to say, this is the advice I've been given and this is why I'm following it, because I think it's going to lead to these to these outcomes.
But when they said we have no choice, what they were saying was, I'm making a decision for which I don't want to be accountable, I have no choice but to make this and I had no choice because scientists are telling me to do it.
You know, I think that's a bad state of affairs to get into as opposed to, so, what would be the opposite or what would be the alternative, the alternative would be the politician saying, "I want to disclose to you all the advice I've been given and it's been summarized here by my science table or by these very capable scientists I have. So, I'm asking you to do the following rather than asking you to do something else. So, this is the choice I've made against something else and this is what I expect to have happen and you can judge me on the results of that," or something that's not very eloquently put but something that reflects the politician acknowledging that they've made a certain trade-off.
So, I think if we don't do that, if we instead get politicians who say, look, my job is merely to be a cipher for scientists, then there will be a politician who will come along and say, I don't think- you know, like, why are you even here, elect me instead.
And ultimately, it delegitimizes and it undercuts the role of politicians which is to see the whole of the moon.
Taki Sarantakis: (muted)
Peter Loewen: Taki, you're on mute.
Taki Sarantakis: I'm sorry. Democracy and experts, Heidi, your take?
Heidi Tworek: Yeah. So, I mean, I think I basically agree with Peter. I'll take a slightly different tack to it which is I think that by saying something like follow the science, that fundamentally misrepresented what science is which is often a contestation between experts.
There were very few moments where you could find that all of the epidemiologists and infectious disease physicians and the behavioural scientists and the communications experts, etc., etc., all with one voice, would have said do X. I think you basically could not find that, right?
Because different people were looking at different aspects of this. There was no one science around the pandemic, right?
And so, if you were an expert in one of these things, you might have said go down one path but then we didn't even know, right, which scientists we should have been listening to.
It turns out, you know, aerosol engineers would have been great if we brought them in super early, actually.
So, even that one phrase, I think, was very misleading because, what scientists were you following, it portrayed experts as a group that came to a specific consensus which wasn't true, actually. There was lots of debate and continues to be amongst different scientific experts about what exactly is the path that should be taken.
And that's where, as Peter said, it's the role of politicians, right, was to come out and say, you know, here's what my science table is telling me, they are unsure about X or, you know, that here is what I have decided to do based on the balance of the evidence that I have received, because there was also no 100% certainty from that science which continued to evolve, right?
It goes back to my point about the meta-framework of science, which by saying things like I've followed the scientists was giving the public a poor impression of how scientific inquiry actually functions.
And so, when scientists disagreed, this also helped to unfortunately create a lot of confusion because if a politician had said I'm following the science and suddenly scientists are disagreeing, what are you supposed to do, right?
And I think a lot of people who didn't actually necessarily follow COVID guidelines at various points, it wasn't- often, it wasn't out of malice, it was genuinely out of confusion.
So, I think it's important to understand that experts are clearly crucial. They help us to interpret a very complex world but they also often disagree, and the role of the politicians then is to figure out, based on this potentially conflicting advice that I'm receiving from experts, what is the path that I'm going to go down?
It's also the role of politicians in many cases to decide which types of experts they want to bring to the table, and I think that's another crucial element to add in here, that actually, at times, we perhaps didn't have, around science tables, all of the different disciplines who could have been the most helpful in informing our path forward.
And COVID is one example but climate change is another, where we're going to need a very different set of interdisciplinary experts to really inform what politicians should be doing so.
Taki Sarantakis: So, our last question kind of flips that on its head a little bit and basically asks, "What can I, as an official, as a public servant in the Canadian context, do to strengthen democracy, to make Canada a stronger democracy because of its public service?"
So, I don't know. Peter, why don't you start us off and then Heidi, and then we'll be kind of wrapping up after this but I'm going to give you each the last word after we take this last question.
Peter Loewen: You know, I would say that it might be timely in saying it, is that I would take very seriously the- not absolutely but I would take very seriously the voices in our country that are expressing real skepticism about the capacity of government and the intention of government, not to- you know, and you don't have to give them the argument but ask really deeply why those questions are being asked.
I think it's great that people would pose that question, to sort of ask, what do I do at an individual level to continue to legitimize this public service that we have, because it is, in so many ways, the best we could have, and in so many other ways, the thing that we really need to work on improving.
But I would say that we really have to understand why people are skeptical of government and are skeptical about its capacities to help us solve the big challenges of the future, and doing a little bit of listening and then trying to respond to that in an open-handed way, open-hearted way, rather than defensively, if I can say something so soft, I think, would be a good starting place.
Taki Sarantakis: So, Heidi, what can I do as an official, as a public servant, to strengthen democracy?
Heidi Tworek: Yeah. So, one thing I think is be imaginative. It's okay to think outside of the box, and COVID- we've both talked about, COVID is an example of that, right? The things that were done in March and April of 2020 would have been, I think, for many people in the public service, almost unimaginable in March and April of 2019.
So, to think outside the box, it doesn't mean that necessarily you implement all of those things but be aware that sometimes it may require imaginative reforms. That's what places like Taiwan and South Korea were willing to do after SARS and MERS and it really, really paid off during COVID in terms of the number of lives saved and the functioning of the economy and so on and so forth, all of the things that one would want to achieve.
And the other thing is to build on Peter's question which is that it's important to recognize the diverse range of ways in which people could be asking the question that he posed.
And I give just one statistic as an example. In British Columbia, a province of, you know, five and a half million people, over one million people do not have English or French as their primary language. So, when we're thinking about how we listen to the people who live in Canada and what they're doing, that really means thinking also in terms of the diversity of the country and how we listen to those people.
Taki Sarantakis: So, I'm going to give each of you a last word and then I'm going to wrap up. Peter, briefly give us a little bit of closing thoughts to democracy and the future of democracy in the public service.
Peter Loewen: The hard times are here again, that's the bad news, that doing policy is going to be harder now than it has been for the last long time. There's no one in a federal cabinet or a provincial cabinet right now who's ever governed during a time of inflation of more than 4% for more than a year. That experience is gone, you know.
So, it's- another way of putting that is that our muscle memory of how to deal with the real hard times is actually pretty atrophied. So, I think that we need to recognize that policymaking is going to be very difficult for the next number of years.
So, the thing to do then is to ask, how did Britain do it after the war? How did they build up a whole new public administrative state? How did we wrestle through Meech and GST and the deficit in the nineties? When we've done big things as a public service, how did we do it? In short, it's time to just read some history to get ready for the future.
Taki Sarantakis: Heidi, your closing wisdom.
Heidi Tworek: Peter, I love it. You can't say to a trained historian, read some more history, but that's exactly what you've done. That's fantastic, and I think that's exactly true, that actually, history is very useful, and I say it's useful because it helps us separate what is the precedented from the unprecedented. There are, of course, some ways in which this confluence of circumstances seems unprecedented but actually, there are many lessons from the past.
And actually, I've just become the Director of a Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at UBC, and we'll be thinking about this, trying to think about, how do we understand the past, analyze the present, and train for the for the future, and I think that is deeply important.
And it, again, requires, as I've said before, potentially thinking outside the box, but we have some precedents in how to do that as well.
Taki Sarantakis: Yeah. Well, what a wonderful kickoff to our new series on the future of democracy.
Democracy takes work. Democracy is not a passive sit back and, again, engage with the system once every four years, and the work that it takes is on a multiplicity of actors, including those of you watching today, the public servants, and it is absolutely critical that we play our role in keeping democracy healthy and vibrant and giving democracy a future.
Because as Peter said, kind of- I don't know if he's paraphrasing Bob Dylan or I'm paraphrasing Peter paraphrasing Bob Dylan, but the times, they are a-changing and a lot of public servants in Canada have never in their lifetimes lived during a period of war, have never lived during a period of inflation, have never lived through a period of, you know, double digit interest rates like many of our parents did, going back.
So, we have to adapt and be resilient and be capable as we move forward in this uncharted world.
Professor Tworek, Professor Loewen, thank you so much for spending your time with us today, and more importantly, thank you for being friends of Canada's public service.
Peter Loewen: Thank you very much.
Heidi Tworek: Thank you very much.
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