I started Wicked Ideas in 2012, and my first client was our local economic development agency, Enterprise Saint John. Its CEO Steve Carson wanted to explore some new ways of engaging with citizens around regional economic development, and he asked me to design something. I came back with a half-day public engagement session that was hosted simultaneously on Twitter and in person, on the University of New Brunswick Saint John campus, the first of its kind in Atlantic Canada. I titled it WTF Saint John (What’s the Future Saint John), and I will forever admire Steve for saying yes to my wickedly cheeky title. While I facilitated the in-person event, my friend Mike Parker manned Twitter, reporting in real-time on social media what was happening in the room and updating the room on what was happening on Twitter. Within an hour, our hashtag #wtfsaintjohn was trending #1 in Canada and #7 in the world, behind #ihatepeople. I was always proud of that bit of wordplay, and so I’m breaking it out of the vault.
At a time when we can’t seem to agree on anything, we seem to have found unanimity around one big issue: government kind of sucks.
It’s slow to respond, its websites are outdated, and its elected leaders are meh.
Society’s original mission-led organizations have lost their way.
WTF government. What’s the future look like?
Let’s start by thinking about the government’s core role: justice.
Scratch beneath the surface of our eternal debates about corporate subsidies, students’ math scores and ER wait times, and you’ll arrive at a core concern for the majority of citizens: a desire for fairness.
When government at any level functions properly, its laws, regulations and public services achieve that balance by embodying our shared values.
Canada has a public health system because Canadians believe no one should be denied care.
Strong democracies provide public education to ensure educated citizens are able to contribute to their communities.
However, we are struggling to find common ground right now, shaking governments to their core.
Our values are in flux, an unsettling outcome caused by over four decades of massive technological change.
As I have written in previous columns, network technologies haven’t just changed how we work; these technologies have changed what we value.
We have integrated the values that power networks – access, exchange, mobility and speed – into our lives, which conflicts with our traditional hierarchical values of control, command, order and fixedness.
Network technologies are changing our concept of fairness.
If we truly want to transform government for the 21st century, we must start by reconsidering how governments administer justice.
We don’t need to go back to school to fix government; we need our day in court.
Reforming and revitalizing our overburdened justice systems could provide us with a path to strengthening all of government because the core role of our courts is also the core purpose of government: to define and administer a shared concept of justice.
So, when it comes to justice, what do we actually want, and where do we want to go?
Do we want to catch bad guys? Keep communities safe? Be a voice for the voiceless? Redistribute power?
Who does our justice system serve? Who does it protect? Who is in, and who is out? Are there limits to our definition of justice? Does it apply to a specific group of people or all people? Is it limited to people, or does it include our surroundings?
These are not simply esoteric questions to be debated over a glass of scotch at the end of a long day.
These foundational questions force us to define what we value today.
If we are to strengthen our democracy, which is a form of government predicated on concepts of tolerance and fairness, we must strengthen and revitalize how we administer it.
It is the ultimate all-of-government project because while the courts may be the most visible part of the justice system, almost every department of government has a role to play in regulating society, from elevator inspectors to social workers, from police detectives to wildlife officers.
That could appear daunting, but I find it exciting because it means we are not alone in our search for justice.
No one department nor officer of the court can or should have all the answers.
Instead, by going big and looking at all the regulatory aspects of government, we will find a shared value proposition that can then be applied across all government departments and activities.
This is how we put our values to work, beginning with our concept of justice.
The best way to revitalize government is to come together and agree to play fair.