AuthorJoyce, Paul
  1. Introduction

    From a public administration perspective, and focused on European countries, this paper presents an analysis of cross-national variations in the capacity of leadership elites of countries to mobilize society to take up challenges. On a commonsense basis, it seemed likely that this capacity might depend on both the qualities of the leaders in a country and the characteristics of the public and the civil society. Here the idea is proposed that public governance institutions are the context for leader-public interactions (and leader-civil society interactions). Only some aspects of the public governance institutions are highlighted. These aspects are named as the 'strategic state'. The analysis is followed by a discussion that explores the ideas that the strategic state is an agile state, and that agile leaders can create an agile (and strategic) state in their own image.

  2. Mobilization of society to take up challenges

    The word 'challenge' can be found in writing on leadership, as in the proposition that adaptive challenges require leadership and learning (Heifetz and Linsky, 2002). The same word appears in media reports and news about governments. Newly elected political leaders may be reported as saying that their government is ready to address the challenges it faces. Governments struggling to deliver their programs may be said to be beset by a difficult set of challenges. The meaning of such statements is usually taken as self-evident. Implicitly we may be equating the word challenge with something that demands government attention, or something that leaders have decided to give special attention, something calling for government to make sustained efforts to deal with, something demanding new civil service capabilities, and so on. It may carry a connotation of being problematic and threatening. It may convey something more positive, as in government setting itself an ambitious and desirable goal that will stretch its resources and capabilities to their limit.

    To give some specific examples of the use of the word, it was used a few times in the resolution on sustainable development adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 25 September 2015. There seemed to be some grading of the challenges by the authors of the resolution. The first mention of it occurred at the beginning of the preamble where attention was drawn to the challenge of eliminating poverty (United Nations, 2015, p. 1): 'We recognize that eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions, including extreme poverty, is the greatest global challenge and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development' (emphasis added). Climate change was said to be a great challenge. Gender inequality was a key challenge. And 'durable peace and sustainable development in countries in conflict and post-conflict situations' was said to be a major challenge (ibid., 2015, p. 11).

    For another example, we can turn to what has been referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which was a challenge for governments (World Economic Forum, 2018). In a book on German public administration digitalization was described as a challenge that was 'ubiquitous and omnipresent' (Kuhlman et al., 2021, p. 10). In 2020 governments were said to face the challenge of responding to a pandemic (COVID-19), which threatened the health and lives of citizens and threatened economic damage. Demographic trends (e.g., booming numbers of young people, ageing populations) and economic cycles (e.g., upswings and downswings, leading to fluctuations in unemployment, fiscal pressures, etc.) are yet more examples of phenomena that might attract the label of challenges for government.

    In fact, we can identify at least four moments when the word challenge may be linked to government activities and responsibilities. First, when carrying out situational and risk assessments, governments may diagnose the presence of challenges in trends and events, such as climate change and global health threats. In this context, challenges are problems for public well-being and seemingly imply a responsibility for governments to act. Second, when setting their future direction and long-term goals, governments may want to be ambitious. In this context, challenges are expressed or appear as intentions that are expected to prove difficult to realize. Third, governments at times work on formulating strategies and actions, and the more complex the issues posed by the situation, the more challenging is the intellectual work of creating feasible solutions and plans. The challenges in this case are the need for analytical and creative thinking. Finally, governments must move from strategies and policies to implementation and some unexpected difficulties may only become apparent at this stage. In this context, governments are challenged by implementation gaps, and such gaps may require special efforts by them to evaluate and learn how to execute strategies and policies.

    Evidence of cross-national variations in the capacity of elites to mobilize society to take up internal or external challenges was found in data collected in 2016 by French civil servants and published online as 'The Institutional Profiles Database' (IPD). This database contained what was essentially perception data about a large sample of countries. The original intention of government funding for this database was to enable research into institutions, economic growth, and development.

    There may be a few factors that might help explain the cross-national variations in the capacity of the elite to mobilize their societies to take up challenges. One of these might be how good the leaders are at reading the readiness of society to take up a challenge and thus timing their mobilizing actions for the optimum moment. Another might be how persuasive the leaders are when communicating with society. Other factors might relate to civil society and the public. For instance, mobilization capacity might depend on the extent of social capital in each country and the specific nature of the public's political culture. Finally, we might suggest that governance systems and the capabilities of the civil service might make a significant difference to the amount of capacity for mobilizing society to take up challenges.

  3. Social capital

    Thomas Hobbes long ago drew attention to the quality of relationships between people in a society and he referred to something he called 'manners'. 'By manners, I mean ... those qualities of mankind, that concern their living together in peace, and unity' (Hobbes, 1962, p. 122). Manners may vary. People can be peaceful and cooperative or aggressive and rivalrous, or a mixture of all of them. Hobbes' concept of manners might inspire us to hypothesize that countries in which people are peaceful and cooperative may be at an advantage when coordinated responses are being mobilized. In effect, this is a hypothesis that social capital is lodged in the manners of citizens in a society.

    Social capital can be measured in a variety of ways. The following two questions can be seen as relating to different aspects of social capital. Are citizens living together in a spirit of mutual respect and support? Have they formed and joined many voluntary associations that provide organized ways of helping each other?

    Scores for the social capital of countries have been compiled for the Global Competitiveness Index (Schwab, 2018). In this case social capital was defined as comprising social cohesion and engagement, community and family networks, and political participation and institutional trust.

    There is only a slight correlation between the social capital of a county and the elite's capacity to mobilise society to take up challenges, but, intriguingly, the social capital indicator in the Global Competitiveness Index is strongly correlated with the average subjective wellbeing of people in a country ('happiness') (see Sachs et al., 2016). This strong correlation may mean that the effect of social capital is to create happiness or that happiness produces high levels of social capital. Analysis revealed that the correlation between the average subjective wellbeing of people and the ability of the elite to mobilize society is a moderately strong one. So, it while it had been expected that social capital would assist mobilization of society to take up challenges, it emerged that the average happiness of the public might be a more substantial factor in mobilization capacity.

  4. Political culture of the public

    In the case of European countries, the conditions under which the elite can build a high capacity to mobilise society to take up important challenges appear to include the political culture of the public in a country and the quality of public services. Table 2 shows 2016 data from a European Union report. These are displayed in the columns headed total satisfied with the way democracy works, my voice counts, and tend to trust government. The bivariate correlation between total satisfaction with the way democracy works and tending to trust government was strong (R = 0.81) and it was also strong between total satisfaction with the way democracy works and people saying their voice counted in their country (R = 0.74). The correlation between people saying their voice counted and saying they tended to trust government was moderate (R = 0.53). Perhaps, this hints at a serial linkage between the three attitudes. To illustrate this possibility of a serial linkage we can note some of the explanations that might be hypothesised. First, government decision-making could be communicated to the public in a way that makes clear that government is demonstrating responsiveness to concerns expressed by the public, which might convince people that their voice counts. This conviction that their voice counts could lead to a positive evaluation of the way democracy works, and this might foster more trust in government. But we can...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT