Our Western leadership has failed miserably at managing the risks of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Not one government in Europe or the Americas can claim a single success in protecting their populations not only from the pandemic but also from the consequences of their botched lockdown measures. The bumbling, stumbling farce that has become our government reactions could be likened to the Keystone Kops: falling all over themselves, frenetically failing and getting up to trip once again. For my 2020 year-end review, I am cataloguing many of the KeystoneCorona crises caused by the failure of our authorities to implement basic risk management tools. Part 6 of this series looks at what this generation of policymakers has done in creating a public (and a public service) that is incapable of managing risks. Cue COVID-19 then and let the KeystoneCorona farce play out.
The world of governance has evolved in the last two decades, redefining its tools and responsibilities to focus more on administration and being functionary (and less on leadership and being visionary). I have written on how this evolution towards policy-making based on more public engagement, participation and consultation has actually led to a decline in dialogue and empowerment. What is even more disturbing is how this nanny state approach, where our authorities promise a population they will be kept 100% safe in a zero-risk biosphere, has created a docilian population completely unable and unprepared to protect themselves.
This KeystoneCorona section looks at how this docilian promise of living risk-free had catastrophic effects for a population thrown into a pandemic (where such a promise wasn’t worth the precautionary paper it was printed on). And like Keystone Kops falling off of a roof, they get up and run along another roof thinking everything would be normal the next time.
First, a bit of history about how docilianism developed into a political force.
A Docilian Fairy Tale
There were many policy crises in the 1990s with public reactions against GMOs, pesticides, chemicals, vaccines and issues surrounding technologies like nuclear energy and waste management. It was the time of tainted blood, dioxins in chickens, acrylamide, MMR vaccines and mad cows. Public trust in regulators was at an all time low as activist NGOs started to use new communication tools to spread fear and grow their funding. At the beginning of the millennium, a new approach to policy was adopted with the EU’s White Paper on Governance. Together with the European Environment Agency’s document on the precautionary principle, published four months later in 2001, the EU redefined policy management, moving from a system that took decisions on best available data and expertise, to one that involved a process of engagement, public participation and empowerment of stakeholders.
Managing policy quickly became managing public expectations with consultations and citizen panels becoming the levers of power and decision-making. This soon morphed into giving the public whatever they wanted, or rather, what they didn’t want. As fear became the palpable influence in motivating policy processes, amplified by emerging social media tribes, the public (as determined by a highly vocal minority of ideological gurus) indicated they did not want the introduction of new technologies, innovations or substances. They were comfortable enough (re: affluent) and rejected anything that entailed uncertainty. The precautionary principle became the easy choice for risk management – a powerful tool that could hoover up any fears that dusted the clean dreams of these ideologues (as well as any green shoots of innovation).
Making “the bad things go away” seemed easy and for two decades, the loud voices of this “public movement” systematically got what they wanted. People didn’t have to worry about managing risks – any possible hazards were being removed. They became docile, entitled and intransigent. Nuclear reactors were being decommissioned, beneficial seeds denied the chance to germinate, pesticides removed from the fields, chemicals banned … Of course the lights were going out more frequently and Europeans became net importers of food … but they were rich enough that few had noticed (except those less affluent). By the time of the second European Environment Agency tomb on the precautionary principle, science had been redefined: no longer to protect humanity from the threats of nature but to protect nature from the threats of man.
More consultation and more engagement with the “public” meant more actions to ban substances and technologies to allay their fears and assure them of a risk-free existence. And as the risks were removed, bigger fears were communicated by these groups, creating an ever more urgent need for more precaution. The fear-mongering machines were insatiable. A recent fear spread widely was that humanity was going to go extinct within the next decade unless we impose citizen assemblies to dismantle capitalism, modern agriculture, transportation and energy. By 2020, the precautionistas were obliging in protecting what had become a docilian mob (with armies of children filling the streets), demanding total safety from whatever they didn’t want (and they had a long list).
Things were going swimmingly … until somebody coughed in Wuhan.
Why Public Policy still Matters
There was a time when public leadership was a service to which experienced managers contributed at the end of distinguished careers in the corporate world, military, academe… Today young, ambitious wet-behind-the-ear pups come into government fresh out of college with a diploma in public policy, political science or law, and nothing else. They were taught by professors who had never led anything more than the occasional faculty meeting and after a six-month internship, these policy pups had the confidence to go into service to save the world. They are wielding tools from their textbooks like the precautionary principle, citizen panels, public participatory engagement methods to ambitiously implement social justice strategies among a closed group of “representative activists”, and from that, policy is determined.
This is in stark contrast to the previous generation of leadership in governance (mostly retiring military strategists and corporate managers) who understood the importance of strong expert-based advice, clear evidence and well-executed scenario-driven strategies. Their backgrounds taught them that policy, like any force, should be implemented only when necessary and that innovative forces and markets, when given the freedom and trust to operate, could solve problems and provide enormous societal benefits.
Instead we now have these millennial militants preaching purpose from the policy pulpit, listening to a closed group activists and virtue signalling sustainability ideologues in narrowly restricted consultation channels. Social justice replaced social achievement as these social engineers engaged actively in prescribing policy and building a bigger, broader government. Many of these leaders had previously been activists until they met a promotion plateau in their NGOs by their mid-30s (then they went into government to continue their battles). Within a larger entitlement culture, people felt they didn’t have to work for their benefits and are not responsible for any consequences of their decisions or actions. This entitlement culture amplified docilianism as an influential force.
So what happens in a world where expertise, facts and strategic vision are no longer core competences in policy leadership? Into that vacuum comes value-driven visions based on precaution-based precepts like safety and certainty, sustainability and transparency. Saying “No!” and moving back to a past, romanticised view of man living with nature became the political strategy.
Did you ever see the Keystone Kops episode where Fatty joined the force? It wasn’t because of his experience or expertise.
Docilian-driven or Driving Docilians?
In 2020 I coined the term “docilian” to describe a large part of the population demanding to be kept 100% safe and risk-free. When an influential part of society becomes affluent and rarely in need, it feels it can remove all potential hazards without the need to consider the consequences of lost benefits. Fundamentally risk averse, docilians campaigned for the removal of nuclear energy (they had solar panels on their rooves), agricultural technologies (they could afford organic food) and the banning of many synthetic chemicals (because they felt better using natural alternatives). Our policymakers gave the docilians what they wanted via a precautionary reflex (the decision by denial of any potentially uncertain hazards).
Were docilians driving the precaution-based policymakers or did the young policy pups, with their nanny-state objectives, amplify this fear-based force? There have always been Chicken Littles running from the sky, but now they were installed in the policy arena with a promise of a precautionary umbrella to protect them from harm.
The previous leadership generation would have empowered their population to take care of themselves (to manage their risks, reduce exposures and learn from experience). Today’s precautionistas are out to save their publics from themselves, prevent any exposure to any hazards and assure them, like good shepherds, that they could be kept absolutely safe. As policies became more restrictive and prescriptive, with potentially hazardous products, technologies and substances taken off the market, this zero-risk mindset was emboldened. And the docilians were reassured, felt protected and believed their world was 100% safe.
Generations of affluence (built up by scientific solutions and technological advances) allowed the authorities to grant docilian wishes and enabled citizen panels to empower policy decisions. But with no expertise, what decisions could they possibly make? They could only take precautionary measures (but that is what the public wanted). These purpose-driven enablers needed to merely procure the panels’ precautionary pronouncements as policy. Within two decades, the governance process went from leadership based on strategic vision and expertise to decision by denial.
And then COVID-19 emerged.
A Plague on both your Houses
Not only did Western populations lose the ability to manage their personal risks, their leadership proved embarrassingly incompetent at managing the coronavirus pandemic. I suppose our emerging leaders didn’t learn risk management in Policy Studies 101. In the two months before the lockdowns in mid-March 2020, most European authorities did nothing to manage the clearly foreseen risks. They reassured their docilian population they could be kept safe if they just washed their hands (with soap). Then they suggested to avoid people who looked sick (I really wish I were making this KeystoneCorona catastrophe up). When hospitals were turning patients away and morgues were filling up, our generation of purpose-driven policy posers implemented precautionary lockdowns (until the virus would go away). Before that they did nothing to protect the most vulnerable in nursing homes, nothing to reduce risks in public spaces and they failed to develop simple tools to track superspreader outbreaks. Even the WHO, that claims to assemble the world’s best risk managers, could not give coherent risk management advice about mask wearing until five months into the suffering. (Jody, you were supposed to have trained them!!!)
As you can imagine, the Risk-Monger and anyone else with some experience in risk management, were screaming incessantly with the hope that some intelligence would enlighten our authorities. Our precautionistas though stuck to their college textbooks on policy principles – when the lockdown cure wasn’t working, what was required was more precaution (like medieval bloodletters). As I write, the UK is entering its third full lockdown. They did not engage in diverse expert advice, did not empower populations to better protect themselves should they contract the virus and they did not benchmark other countries (mostly in Asia) that managed to contain the virus with tracking tools.
The low point in KeystoneCorona idiocy came when a group of esteemed academics suggested focusing scarce resources on the most vulnerable (where a large majority of the morbidities occurred) instead of locking everyone down and leading to greater suffering. They were accused of being COVID-19 deniers.
Normal … Where are You?
The docilians dutifully stayed home, clinging to their hand sanitiser and toilet paper while waiting for normal to return. They looked inward, protected in their affluent gardens and work-from-home opportunities, as others in society suffered terrible effects from the lockdowns. This docilian fear, until now, has been kept far more fertile than the consequences of the precautionary lockdowns (we now have a variant strain, far more virulent). They were told that the only (precautionary) solution was to stay inside until the vaccine nurse calls your number … too bad these docilians aren’t 100% certain about vaccine safety (see next section).
What would the older (risk management) generation of leadership have done if they were still pulling the policy levers? In early January, their taskforces would have gathered a wide range of experts; they would have been drawing up scenarios, preparing resources and developing risk reduction strategies; they would have been communicating and empowering populations to protect themselves to survive the virus and firewalling those too vulnerable to protect themselves. They would have managed the pandemic risk, benchmarking best practices and not resorting to long, severe lockdowns unless absolutely necessary. Even more, these experienced strategic planners would have articulated a vision for the post-corona world and set out a path to a new future with new opportunities (rather than a recovery plan back to some mythical normal).
Instead, we’re told to hunker down and pray that “normal” soon comes back. So much for that docilian promise to be kept safe. Our precautionary-driven policy world has left the West with the Keystone Kops for leadership, suffering has become our present situation with impoverishment as our future outlook.
Normal ain’t coming back, Virginia.