Big Tent

Why being a global citizen is the wrong way to change the world

This is a long read, as part of our Big Tent series

BY Robyn Scott   /  13 September 2017


This is not an argument I ever imagined making. The chilling assertion by British Prime Minister Theresa May that ‘If you believe you are a citizen of everywhere you’re a citizen of nowhere’ makes me feel vaguely nauseous. Having grown up in New Zealand and Botswana, I now live in London, where I’ve spent my career trying to improve lives in distant places. ‘Global citizen’ is the closest I come to a comfortable identity. So it is with existential unease, fingers walking on coals, that I find myself questioning whether it’s the right approach after all.

A clarification: the problem is not that global citizenship isn’t important, even essential, if we are to make a connected world kinder and more just. The problem is that it may be the wrong place to start. It risks masking the demise of participation in our public institutions, without which societies fail altogether — global dreams swallowed by local nightmares.

It’s obvious to anyone who has watched the news in the last few decades that government and politics are not amongst our adolescent century’s most fashionable vocations. With the media reporting a circus of shameless politicians and wasteful splurges of taxpayer funds, it’s also not hard to see why smart people throw up their hands and say, “Not for me”.

Since founding a civic tech startup two years ago, I’ve been watching this disillusionment through a magnifying glass. The startup, Apolitical, seeks to make governments more effective by enabling public sector innovators to learn from what’s working elsewhere in the world. I’ve lost count of the times, when explaining our mission, that people splutter and scoff, demanding: “What innovators? Is anything working?” The more tactful launch into the reasons why they could never be a politician — too much compromise and dirty money — or why they could never work as a civil servant — too much compromise and sodden bureaucracy.

In a divided world, it’s an unusually inclusive sentiment; shared by young and old, in rich and in poor countries, with the characteristic Scandinavian aberrations. Public service is the mullet haircut of today’s career choices; it’s hard to imagine why one would ever inflict such a thing upon oneself. The feeling appears strongest among millennials, my own do-gooding generation whose members often seem to feel more affinity with distant societies in other countries than they do with public institutions on their doorstep. Which, when we consider the governments of today, bodes catastrophically for those of tomorrow.

In pursuit of a solution, it’s worth examining the underlying assumptions of purpose-fuelled young people who might, in prior generations, have defaulted to public service. These assumptions fall into two broad categories: first, that the alternatives to public service are getting better; second, that government is getting worse. At tweet length exposition, both seem robust. But indulge them with a few more words, and things get murkier.

Are the alternatives getting better?

On the face of it, yes. Provided you have a couch, a good internet connection and, ideally, a few good human connections, the world is your sustainably sourced, ethically harvested oyster. It’s never been easier for a motivated young person to build a micro-finance business in another country, to start a viral charitable movement or to create the next big app. And if the app lacks impact? Well, it still dangles the promise of scale — that exalted state where a company’s PR machine, and our modern infatuation with entrepreneurs, conspire to spin denting the world as its own kind of positive impact, no matter the shape of the dent or its indirect consequences.

Of course, none of the above are easy to do. Entrepreneurship, social entrepreneurship and other favourite careers of the global citizen can be ruinous to mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. But amidst the toil, it’s certainly not hard to engineer motivating milestones: a winsome selfie with the disadvantaged kids your startup is helping, or a flattering feature in a magazine about little more than your Ivy League dropout story and your gravity-defying vision. I say this as someone guilty of versions of the above, and in no way wishing to diminish the amazing work of globally minded entrepreneurs. If I am barbed, it is only because the lure of such insta-fame and gratification comes with such grave consequences for the public service. Which is less photogenic, less individually glorifying, but which, on average, offers much greater impact and scale.

With a few notable exceptions, entrepreneurship, social entrepreneurship, impact investing and innovative philanthropy are still gnats to government’s (non-partisan) elephant. To take one striking figure: the average OECD country’s government controls about 40% of GDP. That’s $16 trillion in the OECD, tens of trillions globally. It may be hard to change things in government, but as investors are fond of saying to entrepreneurs about their dwindling equity, it’s better to have a small slice of a big pie. In government, making a tiny change is still a massive deal. The pie, moreover, is unlikely to shrink. As algorithms feast on our jobs, like it or not, government must step in more and more to manage wealth redistribution.

And this at a time when talented young people are flocking to build transformative platforms, while overlooking the most important platform of all: government. Which brings us the rule of law, highways, the internet, our social security safety net.

Congressman Joe Kennedy sums it up poignantly: ‘You’ve got a generation now that is extremely engaged in trying to solve problems and the heartbreaking piece about this for me that they don’t look at their government as a way to solve those problems anymore. They look at social entrepreneurship, non-profits, the internet, online communities, new innovations, the sharing economy as ways to drive new efficiencies and to solve challenges, but they don’t think government can actually play a role there.’

Is government getting worse?

To address the second prevailing assumption, consider four possible answers, in descending order of what most people believe:

i) Yes, for intrinsic reasons: In some ways this is certainly true. The world abounds with examples of where money has corroded politics almost beyond recognition, with devastating consequences for social and environmental justice. Politics, meanwhile, has in many countries become more partisan, hampering governments’ effectiveness and ability to test and implement innovative solutions. In both cases, however, it’s hard to imagine how the problem can better be fixed from the outside rather than the inside, especially if the outside-in approach convinces the most principled to forgo seats at the table — which will always be filled by those less scrupulous.

ii) Yes, for extrinsic reasons: Governments this century face on average much more complex and quickly evolving problems — climate change, inequality, cyber security, regulating AI — with increasingly diverse and divided stakeholders, and while operating within legacy institutional structures designed for a reality that by comparison to today’s is 2D and monochrome. The ADHD and sensation-seeking media, meanwhile, makes the reasonable risk-taking needed to reform institutions and respond to new challenges even harder. But again, staying away from government, retreating from the ring, isn’t going to fix anything; problems aren’t going to get simpler or slow down. Listen to as many hopeful songs on Pandora as you like, all those cute social media icons aren’t fluttering back into their box.

iii) Yes, but it’s better than you think: The media loves to hate government, which at its worst offers glorious fodder for outrage, and at its best necessarily does a lot of stuff that’s pretty dull, or at least slow to bloom. The net result is that we hear little about what’s working. And there’s a lot. Apolitical showcases these examples, and we’re finding it hard to keep up. Amidst all the problems, citizen engagement technologies are making government more demand-driven, behavioural economics and design-thinking are making public services work better for people. The list goes on. And if we hear little — too little — about what’s working, we hear even less about the legions of principled and determined people behind successes. In most cases these men and women joined the public service with a deep wish to improve their societies. And they are mostly just as frustrated as any of us by the limitations of the system. Of course there are incompetent people in government. But in what sprawling organisation is this not the case? And the best people give any other sector a run for its money: in the two years since starting Apolitical, I’ve met as many smart and creative people working in government as I have in a decade in entrepreneurship, media and tech.

iv) No, it’s getting better: Considering the state of the world from thirty thousand feet, this is a hard argument to make. But zoom in and there are some notable bright spots, even at the tricky intersection of politics and civil service. Many mayors, for example, are accelerating the pace of public sector change, with cities pioneering agile innovations and asserting themselves as forward-thinking, multilateral players — witness, in the US, the recent collaborations around emissions reductions in response to the federal government’s abdication of sense and responsibility. Still on climate, by 2015 EU greenhouse gas emissions were down by 22% compared with 1990 levels — putting the EU on track to beat its 2020 target. In poorer countries, meanwhile, the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen by about 1billion since the early 1980s, in part due to better economic policy.

In sum: it’s complicated. What’s not complicated is the ever more urgent need for our most talented people to walk not away but towards public service.

Political training schools that equip young people for public office are the most visible attempt at a solution. And they work. My Apolitical co-founder, Lisa Witter, has started several focused on people normally without bridges into the political systems and a number of impressive alumni are now in or running for office. While we need many more such programs to fill the funnel, one of the cheering consequences of 2016’s ghoulish exhibits of modern politics and political leadership is that the numbers of such programs have exploded, especially in the US. However, important as they are, these remain a downstream part of the solution. They don’t solve the upstream problem of how to get people to consider public service in the first place, or of how to disabuse them of blunt assumptions.

For this, I believe, we need young people who care about improving the world to reimagine themselves as ‘public citizens’. And we need public citizenship to become as valued and supported as global citizenship.

In the same way that global citizenship speaks in part to a worldview and in part to action, public citizenship is about both believing in the importance of our public institutions and about participating in these institutions, to strengthen and improve them. Participation will vary from person to person. Simply voting is not enough. Equally a career in public service is not for everyone, nor should it be. Between these poles, there are, however, many options — from showing up to town halls and sitting on public sector advisory boards, to community organising and short tours of duty in government. President Obama created a number of excellent programs enabling the latter. The issue is more demand than supply; imagine if bluechip employers started valuing public sector engagement on candidates’ CVs as much as they valued volunteering for charities in Africa.

Such participation has immediate and direct benefits for the public sector. But even more valuable are the long term and indirect benefits of more people having closer proximity to public institutions. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed, ‘Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and enjoy it.’

A powerful metaphor lies even closer to home, in the institution of the family. An alien — or AI with humanoid aspirations — might understandably marvel at how even in loving families people criticise, bicker, disappoint and undermine each other, only to gather cheerfully around the Christmas, Eid, Passover, Thanksgiving or birthday table. Why? We accept our families’ dysfunction party because the price of rejecting our family is so great. And partly because, with regular proximity to the dysfunction, we’re reminded that there can be no utopian equilibrium in an institution that must embrace and support such a menagerie of personalities and interests. We see the bad behaviour observed by the incredulous alien. We also see through it, to the messy motives, the old grievances, the complex backstories. If as Tolstoy said, ‘every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’, we accept the consequences of our families’ unhappiness because we are not blind to the stories, the particular way. Intimacy grants us compassion and pragmatism.

This is why we need a generation of public citizens. Smart and passionate young people who come close enough to government to appreciate that its dysfunction is partly a product of its ambition. Who roll up their sleeves, or at least encourage others to do so. And who quit bemoaning the decline and fall of government and so creating a self-fulfilling prophesy. The price of failing to do so is too great. For people on the other side of the street. But also for people on the other side of a world in which global civility and cooperation are held together by gossamer agreements that can be woven and sustained only by those governments strong enough to lift their eyes above their borders.


Robyn Scott is co-founder and CEO of Apolitical