Author: Jon Alexander
The Co-Founder of the New Citizenship Project discusses the politics of agency and the need to reinvent democracy and move beyond meritocracy. Originally published in 2019.
In October 2008 Iceland’s three largest banks went bankrupt in the course of three days. The stock market plummeted, and as the extent of corruption became clear, trust in every aspect of the national establishment went with it. What became known as the ‘pots and pans revolution’ brewed over five months, resulting in the resignations of the government, the head of the Central Bank, and the director of the Financial Supervisory Authority. Soon there were criminal convictions for many of those involved.
Out of the crisis began a grassroots reinvention of the Icelandic political system, starting in the city of Reykjavik. In May 2010, shortly before the city elections, the nonprofit Citizens Foundation launched a website offering all the parties a space where their supporters could participate not just in commenting on but in suggesting policy ideas. Only one minor party took them up on it; but when a third of the population participated in the space of two weeks, that party won the mayoralty. By October 2011, an agreement was in place with the city administration whereby elected representatives would debate and respond to top ideas from the platform every month. Over 70% of the population has since contributed, and what has become known as Better Reykjavik has evolved further, in functionality (for example into participatory budgeting) and in reach (with sister platform Better Iceland playing a significant role in the recent national election).
Robert Bjarnason, co-founder of the Citizens Foundation, says the main lesson of 2008 was that “we Icelanders realised we couldn’t leave the running of the country to the elite any more.” The meritocracy had crashed. The contrasting insight that drives Better Reykjavik is that all of us are smarter than any of us; that every citizen has vital insight and expertise to contribute, whether academic or from everyday experience.
From Meritocracy to Democracy
This very un-meritocratic insight is bubbling into action everywhere. Take Taiwan, where a strikingly similar founding story saw the gov zero hacker movement integrate into formal government in the aftermath of the 2014 Sunflower Movement; Mexico City, with its crowdsourced constitution; the transformation of Oklahoma from one of America’s fattest cities to one of its healthiest enabled (not led) by “Million Pound Mayor” Mick Cornett; his counterpart Naheed Nenshi’s “3 Things For Calgary” campaign; the phenomenon that started as Detroit Soup, where local people eat cheaply together and spend the proceeds on local projects, which is now replicated in 60 places across the UK alone. Most prominent among recent examples, take the Irish abortion referendum: the trigger was the self-confessed inability of the political elite to break the deadlock; the terms were framed by the outputs of a nationally representative citizens’ assembly; the result has been a strengthening of national unity at a time when growing division is arguably the global norm.
What is more, this insight is driving change and success across sectors, not just in formal politics. De Correspondent, the Dutch news brand crowdfunded into existence in 2013, is one of few in its sector growing fast. It is driven by the philosophy that the news should not be about sensationalism but about equipping people to understand the underlying dynamics of society, and the belief that this is a task which needs everyone. As CEO Ernst-Jan Pfauth puts it, “we don’t call them journalists, we call them conversation leaders; and we don’t call them readers, we call them expert contributors.” It’s a philosophy that is proving powerful across the world: at the end of 2018, the team successfully closed a US$2.5 million crowdfunding round to launch an English language version. Even further from politics, Brewdog is the original crowdfunded company, and the only company of any kind to rank among the UK’s hundred fastest growing for the last six years running; the founders see these results as fundamentally driven by open source recipes, brew days, and above all the Equity Punk community, thousands of whom gather annually for the AGM.
What all these examples speak to is the need for ideas, participation and input from everywhere — not only for the sake of legitimacy and stability, but also for the sake of success as currently defined. Compared to this radical, participatory, dynamic breed of democracy, meritocracy starts to look more like mediocracy, even on its own terms.
From Merit to Agency
If democracy is the new meritocracy, agency is the new merit. Large numbers of people contribute to these initiatives precisely because they offer us genuine agency to shape the world we live in: because humans are creatures who need to feel agency. This is a truth implicit in Michael Young’s understanding of the deep danger of meritocracy as the systemic repression of agency, not only depriving the majority of the opportunity to express it, but telling them that for the good of society they should not even aspire to do so: “Today we frankly recognise that democracy can be no more than aspiration, and have rule not so much by the people as by the cleverest people.” The fundamental importance of agency was made explicit in the success of “Take Back Control” as the call-to-arms for Britain to leave the European Union.
In order to reclaim and reinvent democracy as “the next ‘ocracy’”, we need to improve our understanding of the concept of agency dramatically. As Young foresaw, and as the Vote Leave campaign exemplifies, it is being dangerously co-opted today by far right populists, whose representatives claim that they can solve it for us: that we should take agency from the faceless and unaccountable elites who have it today, and give it to them. The simplicity of this appeal is incredibly powerful in a world where the only alternative appears to be the status quo. But as the examples above show, the best response is not to compete head-to-head in a fight over where agency should be invested, but to refuse the choice, and instead open that agency up to everyone, building it together. This is the task for those who would already do lead in the true democracy that is emerging.
This task is fundamentally different to that facing the administrators of meritocracy: leadership is not management. As Young foresaw, the meritocracy has been a managerialist society of measurement, identification, and resulting allocation of resource, including people. In the democracy that is emerging, the key task of leaders is facilitation: the creation of the conditions for agency to be expressed in useful, meaningful ways. This kind of leadership still requires data to understand its performance, but if the meritocracy required measurement of the individuals to be allocated, democracy will require measurement of the conditions to be cultivated.
The Agency Equation: A Proposal
Agency = Purpose + Belonging + Power
Agency: the ability to shape the context of one’s life
Purpose: the belief that there is something beyond your immediate self that matters
Belonging: the belief that there is a context to which you matter in turn
Power: practical access to genuine opportunities to shape that context
This proposal is derived primarily from the common characteristics of the examples with which this essay begins. Better Reykjavik offers a clear purpose of making the city better together; the structure of the community of ideas, as well as the city itself, establishes a context to which the citizens matter; and the explicit contract whereby the ideas rated highest are debated monthly gives people power. With De Correspondent the spirit of inquiry into the structure of society gives purpose; the framing of expert contributors rather than readers makes clear the relationship between individual and context; and a wide range of opportunities for direct interaction creates power.
This proposal is not definitive, but comes from an understanding that as Michael Young suggested, “every ‘ocracy’ lights a match beneath it”; as the meritocracy falls, the task is less to return to first principles than to observe what is already emerging, understand it, and do more of it. If the medium is to match the message, the task of identifying those conditions — the components that are to agency what IQ and effort are to merit — should be undertaken in a way that is open and collaborative: if all of us are smarter than any of us, then all of us should define agency and its components, not just me.
With that said, if we are to learn from the spirit of these initiatives as well as the substance, what we might do is start.
These initiatives are now bubbling everywhere, across sectors and across the world. But they do not exist in a conceptual framework that encourages them to thrive. The renewal of democracy needs the concept of agency to be made more tangible, and the fame of Michael Young’s articulation of the merit equation shows how powerful this approach might be. The agency equation I have proposed might not be perfect, but it could be easily and quickly translated into a simple survey. It could be something that was polled regularly, creating an index. Call it the Citizen Confidence Index, to point at the Consumer Confidence Index that still holds much sway in the declining meritocracy. It could be made available to inform conversations about policy and strategy in governments and organisations small and large. This could be done in the space of a few months.
When Iceland hit the wall, the Citizens Foundation didn’t just comment, they created. It is surely in the spirit of the Young Foundation to do the same.
This article was originally published at https://beyondmeritocracy.squarespace.com. It was first published in early 2019 as the winning submission to an essay competition celebrating 60 years since the publication of Michael Young’s Rise of the Meritocracy.
Jon Alexander is Co-Founder of the New Citizenship Project and a member of the Social Liberal Forum Council.