For those of you who've complained that my blog hasn't been updated in ages, here's something for you to chew on. It's a first draft for a speech that was never delivered due to the seminar being cancelled. The seminar was to have been on the topic of "Governance in the Asian Region: Aligning the Agendas of Government, Business and Civil Society for Competitiveness and Social Creativity." (Don't you just love that title? Those of you who have to seek project funding as part of your jobs, take note.)
The issue of aligning agendas is of great importance not only to Asia but to the developing world in general. A better understanding of the issue in Asia is of particular relevance because the region is so diverse in its experiences that many of the lessons we draw from Asia may possibly be applied to much of the rest of the developing world.
The need to align competing but interdependent agendas, as I understand it, is fairly recent. It was not so long ago that the Asian region was dominated by a single agenda: the Cold War struggle between the superpowers. For several decades after the Second World War, any agenda that did not fit under this dominant “super-agenda” was sidelined or neglected.
With the end of the Cold War, we have seen a proliferation of actors, and with it, a proliferation of agendas. While the state remains the primary actor on the world stage, its decisions and policies increasingly reflect the agendas of sub-state actors.
How does the state handle this rapid increase in the demands made upon it? How does it respond to the new classes of actors that have sprung up and quickly made their presence felt in the policy arena?
Clearly, appropriate mechanisms are needed to help the state perform its gatekeeping duties. For some countries, a pluralist political tradition has allowed mechanisms and institutions to evolve to cope with the myriad demands of a vibrant, dynamic society.
In many Asian countries, policy is traditionally determined by a central authority, such as a technocratic elite. In such societies, only a few well-placed groups have access to the policy making process. Those who lack access to that process, which often means the majority of the population, may see their agendas ignored in national policy. Without formal channels of interest articulation, they may resort to unorthodox or extra-legal means to air their grievances.
With the onset of globalization and the flowering of democracy across much of Asia, the policy process has been swiftly opened up to public participation. No longer the domain of an exclusive few, policy has become a lively field of contestation where interest groups new and old now vie to have their interests included as part of the national agenda.
Such a sudden flourishing of democracy and the free market may be accompanied by some degree of disruption. Even now, many countries in Asia are still in a transitional phase, as newly unleashed forces test the limits of the established order and challenge it to evolve new, more responsive mechanisms and institutions.
Under these conditions, the relationship among government, business and civil society has become more complex. The proliferation of actors and agendas means an exponential increase in the possibilities for both cooperation and conflict among various interest groups. Government, as the traditional gatekeeper for policy, now has to reconcile a growing number of demands from a growing number of actors. Some of these demands are congruent, some are not. Some agendas can be easily aligned, others can be aligned but only with some effort, while others still are so contradictory that they cannot be aligned at all. If only to make the process more manageable, government needs to provide an environment that encourages the alignment of agendas, where win-lose scenarios can be recast into win-win scenarios, and where zero sum situations can be transformed into non-zero sum situations that encourage cooperation.
This is not an easy task, but then governance has never been an easy task. The role of government is not to determine, a priori, who should win and who should lose. In a pluralistic society, it is not always easy to judge where the national interest lies. It is not always clear, for example, whether to give higher priority to the interests of importers or exporters, consumers or producers, urban or rural populations. Even within the business community, there is not necessarily a single shared agenda. For any given policy, there will be some industries that favor and others that oppose it. A proposed raise in the import tariff for a certain product, for example, will enjoy support from domestic producers of the product, but will encounter opposition from industries that depend on the import and stand to lose their competitiveness as a result of the tariff hike.
Good governance involves providing the ground rules and the space for discourse where all stakeholders can engage one another in rational dialogue, so that all sides of an issue may be considered. Through such a process, all sides can make their case and give some indication of where the real public interest lies.
For competing agendas, an open discursive space would help us to identify points of alignment, if any, among them. Even for agendas that lack any points of alignment, open rational discourse is more constructive than the alternatives.
In practical terms, such an open field of contestation may be messier and more chaotic, at least in the beginning, than a closed policymaking process. But this should be offset by the gains society as a whole stands to enjoy in terms of competitiveness and social creativity. When policy is determined by the quality of ideas rather than by the authority or seniority of each idea’s supporters, interested parties will spend more time thinking through their agendas. Because ideas will have to compete in the public arena, on their own merits, there will be greater transparency. Because an open discursive space encourages the establishment of checks and balances, there will be greater accountability. And because mediocre ideas will be rejected, there will be a greater incentive to come up with creative, workable solutions to society’s problems.
To be sure, a society based on the competition of ideas will produce a great many bad ideas. But it will also produce many good ideas and allow the best to rise to the top, while keeping bad ideas at the bottom of the heap where they belong. A culture of open discourse will have effects far beyond the public policy arena, and would seep into other areas of activity, including education, business and government. This would translate into enhanced competitiveness and creativity for the society as a whole.
To sum up, aligning agendas is one of the most important challenges facing governments and societal actors today. Governments need to help society align its agendas to make governance more manageable and responsive to real needs. Societal actors need to align their agendas so as to carry more weight with those who can translate their agendas into public policy, in other words, government. Since not all agendas lend themselves to alignment, the art lies in providing an open environment so that points of alignment may be found among seemingly competing agendas. Such openness would not only strengthen a country’s competitiveness, but by involving all stakeholders, would also contribute to sustainable, holistic development.