At least theoretically, in a democracy, newly elected Presidents and Prime Ministers are able to hand pick Cabinet Ministers and Secretaries to lead key departments. There is usually a scramble for prized portfolios such as Finance (Treasury), Defense, Foreign Affairs (State) or Home (Interiors). As a response to changing times, once lightweight portfolios like Education, Health, Science and Technology, Commerce, Energy and Environment, have acquired respectability. Some countries have Cabinet Ministers for specific industries like Textiles and Power, services like Information Technologies and Airlines and even popular causes like Peacebuilding, Islam and Animal Welfare. One can imagine soon enough an Indian Prime Minister creating a Cabinet level post in charge of Bovine Welfare, Pakistan creating a Secretary of State for Islamic Meteorology or Sweden creating a Minister for LGBTIQ Affairs.

The departments funded and Cabinet posts created give an indication of the priorities of a society or nation. At the very least they tell us what the elected government must be seen as supporting in order to stay in power. In this context, it is telling that no government has ever seen it necessary to nominate a Minister or Secretary for Civic Engagement and Democracy. The closest that governments come to paying attention to the democratic process is entrusting an official body (in India this being the Election Commission, in the US the Secretaries of State) to organize and monitor the electoral process. Quite apart from the mechanics and logistics of conducting elections no one of any heft or significance in government concerns themselves with taking care of the state of democracy in the nation.

So here is a thought. Given what could be called a crisis of faith in liberal, secular values as well as democracy itself, perhaps more attention could be paid by governments (political parties, CSOs, businesses and ordinary citizens) to strengthening democratic societies. Many states have well developed electoral processes and are able to hold regular elections and effect peaceful transfer of power with predictable regularity. This is no mean feat and is, indeed, the first level of democratic functioning. When a state is able to put the basic mechanics of an electoral democracy in place this allows citizens to select their representatives without fear or favor. Unfortunately, as in most things, it is human nature to pay attention to what is in front of us, easy to accomplish, measureable and quantifiable. Effective electoral mechanisms are now well within the grasp of technocrats and bureaucrats, notwithstanding the odd problem with gerrymandering, stealing ballot boxes, illicit funding of elections and hanging chads, all of which, while problematic, can be ‘fixed’ with robust technocratic and legislative action. What democracies don’t do as well is something so simple that it goes under the radar of most governments today. Governments have not seen it fit to pay attention to developing the requisite democratic values, skills and dispositions that are necessary for citizens to participate as full members of a democratic state. In other words we are all dressed up for the party except we don’t know how to dance and as a matter o fact many of us think dancing is for wimps. Some good ol’ boys even think parties are opportunities to get drunk and create a bit of good-natured mayhem.

There are simple reasons why technocrats and managers cannot solve this problem- what I will call Democracy’s Cultural Problem. They cannot solve this because their normal styles of thinking and problem solving don’t work as well here. There are no technological or managerial solutions to this problem, much as there are no technological solutions to helping people become better teachers, parents, friends or spouses. A good citizen is in some ways just an extension of an intelligent, humane and sensitive human being. No software or App will transform an uneducated, callous and insensitive person into a good citizen. The qualities that go into making a good citizen are not technical and cannot be replicated or scaled (the holy grail of technocrats). Just as a reality check, it is worth considering that religion has consistently tried to do just that- scale moral behavior through codifying best practices and behaviors, creating rules, strictures, taboos and punishments. We know how that has worked out for us!

Developing democratic citizenship is not a technical, managerial or religious problem. It is a psychological, philosophic and cultural problem requiring very different kinds of capabilities. It is not about knowing the right thing to do or having the right answers as much as it is about developing a radical sensibility that allows one to transcend the biological limitations with which all mammals, and our species itself, is burdened. Becoming a democratic citizen is to learn to override the threat perceptions of the reptilian brain or amygdala when it goes into overdrive or the limbic brain is stuck in tribalism, selfishness, easy gratification and narrow righteousness. It requires that we humans finally grow to be worthy of our chosen name, Homo sapiens (the wise man) and deliberately develop our sensitive, rational and generous natures. It requires that we develop an appreciation of complexity and cosmopolitanism, develop the skills of dialogue and negotiation (as opposed to deal making), and grow up to be generous and collaborative adults. Our business leaders, billionaires, bureaucrats, politicians, tech wizards and special interest advocates have no idea how to solve this problem so they seek answers in places where they know to look- technology and legislation- much like Mullah Nasruddin looking for his lost keys under the street lamp because it is easier to search where there is light.

What if democratic states invested in fostering a culture of democracy? Imagine a Minister of Civic Engagement and Democracy mandated with the task of ensuring that platforms for engagement and dialogue are built into all institutions in the country. Imagine that the Minister and his department foster the values of democracy- which are, reasoning and critical thinking; appreciation of pluralism, dialogue and most of all the ability to understand and collaborate with those with whom we disagree. Most of all, imagine that they do so without propaganda or preaching and instead commit to reforming our current inhuman, insensitive and anti-democratic educational system. Imagine that they model these values themselves in the public discourse; and collaborate with their counterparts in other political parties instead of demeaning themselves the way they do now with their bickering and politicking. Imagine, too, that the Department of Civic Engagement and Democracy would not work in silos but would collaborate with other departments Education, Social Welfare and Culture to drive each other’s goals and mission. For the moment, imagine that the Department of Democracy and their collaborative activities could get funded- it would take a fraction of what is today spent on circuses such as the Olympics or in building concrete white elephants to a nation’s ego. Imagine the cultural, moral, economic and developmental gains that would permeate every corner of such a hypothetical nation! Imagine the model for the rest of the fledging and dispirited democracies if just one country, like the USA, UK, Germany, France or India were to put this in place!

However, there are many reasons why, as long as our leaders are unimaginative technocrats, politicians and bureaucrats, this scenario will not come to pass:

  1. The long term is not sexy and will not test well in polls
  2. Complex, slow maturing ideas will not attract eyeballs, foot falls or trend on Facebook or Twitter
  3. Neither the glitterati nor the plebeians will be pleased by having to exert any real effort to develop their human skills and dispositions
  4. The long term will not generate immediate results that can be quantified or empirically verified. This will, in turn, make it difficult to find funding or sustain it
  5. Those enamored of AI, robotics and trans humanism, who would like to transcend humanity itself, will find developing the higher human qualities to be an irrelevant exercise- so 19th century!
  6. The realpolitik mavens who focus on balance of power, security and unfettered markets are unlikely to see investment in democracy itself as a priority
  7. Creating a culture through human development is too amorphous for engineers and accountants who will have a hard time handling anything intellectually complicated
  8. Hence techies, politicians and managers will stick to what they can understand, subtlety and nuance be damned
  9. Most damning of all, the qualities that make one a successful business person, a brilliant technologist and an electable politician are not the ones that also make one a good listener, a holistic and critical thinker and an empathic human being. All of which are key to good citizenship.

Even so, despite how counter-intuitive this might seem and the enormous challenges that lie in the path of creating a genuine and deep democratic culture, just imagine if a government, just one government, funded a department of Civic Engagement and Democracy. Finally, imagine that this government chose, not a popular politician or a digitally enamored technocrat but a gentle and wise Homo sapiens and democrat to be in charge of it.

Actually, don’t just imagine, go out there and live your life like you are the Cabinet Minister in charge of Democratic values!

5 thoughts on “A Cabinet Minister for Democracy and Civic Engagement

  1. Hi, Albie writing from a lake in Maine, on Sep 3, Follett’s birthday in 1868. I think she would find your proposition irresistible. I am up with grandchildren and they want to play, so, ” the play’s the thing.” More later.

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  2. As you note there are a number of reasons that establishing a Minister of Civic Engagement is and will be an uphill struggle. Any candidates either individuals or venues come to mind. Maybe self-nominate yourself?? Another approach would be to start from the bottom by offering communication, engagement, active listening . classes to citizens. We mediators already do some of this but mostly aimed at resolving disputes/conflicts and little emphasis on civic engagement and activism.

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    1. Indeed, Alan, mediators, like a couple of other groups have long been helping clients do this in a limited way in their personal or professional capacity. For democracy to flourish the citizenry at large need to develop the capacity to engage with differences constructively.

      Establishment of a cabinet position will be an uphill task but that is the easier one, inculcating this skill and disposition upon a significant enough population for this to become part of the larger culture is the real challenge. That is the advantage autocracies have, they do not need what I call higher order capabilities such as critical thinking, active listening, principled negotiation, dialogue facilitation or complex empathy within the population. One could say these qualities are singularly dangerous for despotic and non-democratic regimes. All they need, at best are ‘disciplined’ ‘patriotic’ and economically productive citizens who follow the orders and rules laid out by the ruling classes. Democracies, as opposed to psephocracies (simple representative ‘democracies’) require an intelligent and mature citizenry.

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      1. Agree Ashok that it is critical to consider the form of government (there are subtle and not so subtle gradations between true democracies and despotic regimes). For example I received an email today from my former student, now an academic in Turkey who fears (realistically) government incursions on and suppression of her freedom of expression and even her own freedom (some colleagues have been arrested).

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