Turning politics inside-out – where do you stand?

Christina is an engaged, capable and professional young woman. She excelled in her university studies and had the pick of employers for her first job. A strong commitment to her community led her to work for her country’s government, where she has progressed rapidly through a set of increasingly challenging civil service roles.

Whitehall, London. Source: track5 (iStock)

But recently, she has noticed that the conduct of public life is changing. Politicians are closing ranks. The tenor of debate is increasingly hostile. Highly partisan parliamentarians are striking uncompromising positions and shouting down those who oppose them. Outside parliament, an increasing number of her friends are protesting. They want a different politics and a government that listens to their concerns.

Christina has a simple question: “Can I make more of a difference from the inside or the outside?”.

Of course, she’s far from the first person to ask this. Political philosophers and those committed to making change happen have debated it for centuries. There is, however, a renewed urgency around the question in this populist age, in particular for younger generations. Trust in institutions has declined, often encouraged by populist attacks on their legitimacy. Resurgent social movements have steadily gathered new activists among those under 40. This leaves many young people who are dedicated to making a difference in their communities asking Christina’s question. Three considerations might help them.

First, they need to know themselves. In public life, different roles require different temperaments. A senior civil servant recently summarised it for a group of graduate students at the Blavatnik School: “Are you a campaigner who gets excited about ideas and values or a pragmatist who most enjoys getting things done?” The more powerfully ideas and values motivate an individual, the more difficult they will find life as a civil servant, since they are obliged to follow the direction of their political masters. If they really want to get things done, though, the levers of state authority provide powerful instruments to make change happen when compared to the often demanding and drawn-out course of campaigning from the ‘outside’.

Second, aspiring changemakers need to prioritise the type of change they want to make. They must develop a view of how change can happen and what role they can play in the process. If the change they want to see is so radical that incremental steps by government are unlikely to achieve it, they may decide they have to work from the outside to reimagine and then reshape the system. For many issues, however, the size of the state and scale of its activities readily allows those who work inside it to have a positive impact on a substantial number of lives.

Lastly, they need to take a view about those for whom they work. In all political systems there is a structured relationship between those who compete for and hold power (the rulers) and those who serve them (the functionaries). This codified relationship provides both a moral boundary, which can insulate the functionary from the actions of the ruler, and a professional boundary, which allows the functionary to draw personal worth from their activities. So, for example, a government lawyer can take pride in providing timely, well-reasoned advice to ministers on the legal risks of a course of action even if, in the end, ministers elect to take a course with which they personally disagree. They have discharged their professional duty and may not feel morally implicated by the ministers’ choice.

Yet not everyone finds this separation of agency comfortable. And even those who in normal times do may still face challenges in serving a government. If a political leader takes actions that are illegal or inconsistent with the constitution of a country, public servants might consider that this is a different type of decision than a policy choice. Under these circumstances, they could feel compelled to resign and challenge the government from the outside, rather than continuing to be insiders implicated by these actions.

These three distinctions may help some who feel confronted by this quandary – and yet perhaps the choice between inside and outside is not so stark.

Bringing about change and mobilising others requires compromise and the ability to listen to the views of others, whether you are trying to win votes in the next local election or work for a small charity trying to influence government policy. There are critical roles to be played by both insiders who understand the reasons that move campaigners to take to the streets, and outsiders who understand the constraints that those in power face and find ways of working within them.

For all its dramatic appeal, the ‘inside or outside’ dilemma may be a false choice. This polarised era tends to pitch people against each other. The urgent task may not be to choose where we stand but to find better ways to work together, regardless of who is inside or outside.  

Calum Miller is Chief Operating Officer and Associate Dean (Administration) at the Blavatnik School of Government.

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