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From citizens’ juries to forest cities—2017’s overlooked policy trends

Author: Apolitical
Published Date: 18 January 2018

Here at Apolitical, we review and write about policies from all over the world. In 2017, a number of big trends emerged – many of which you may have read about here on our platform.

More public servants are integrating technology into their everyday work with tools like big data and artificial intelligence. Governments made unprecedented efforts to bring citizens into policymaking this year, either through direct engagement or simply by making it easier for constituents to interact with them online. Many came around to the potential of public-private partnerships to help them tackle cross-cutting problems. The value of innovation labs and the tools they apply to solve problems, like user-centred design and nudges, came to the fore.

We’ve covered these trends in government exhaustively. Here, we decided to do something a bit different: we’ve picked out five big ideas that, in our opinion, did not garner the attention they deserved in 2017.

If you’re interested in public-private partnerships, take a look at how companies and governments are collaborating to build better cities. 

In recent years, governments have come to realize that the problems faced by our societies are too large and complex to be tackled alone. With their specialised expertise and financial backing, private companies can help government shift some of the risk involved in experimental policymaking. Now, some cities are taking these arrangements a step further by directly involving the private sector in how cities are built and run.

In October, Sidewalk Labs – a subsidiary of Alphabet, which owns Google – announced plans to pour $50 million into developing a waterfront “smart city” neighbourhood in Toronto. The company will use Internet of Things sensors to track city services and how they are used. Sidewalk Labs says this data, which will be open to the public, will allow it to continually improve services for citizens.

The idea is to build a model neighbourhood for the twenty-first century – one with reduced pollution, shorter commutes and safer streets, where the environment is shaped by how citizens use it.

Meanwhile, in Arizona, an investment firm that manages Bill Gates’ money has bought up 100 square kilometres of desert land, reportedly to build an $80 million “smart city” called Belmont. Cascade Investment LLC will build offices, stores, schools and homes for 182,000 people, all the while testing “city of the future” ideas like self-driving cars, smart traffic systems and free high-speed WiFi.

These initiatives are controversial because they put companies at the helm of governance. In Toronto and Arizona, corporations will have a direct say in shaping policy and running a city, and get access to all data generated. But the benefits for city governments are hard to ignore: they get unparalleled technological expertise and a funding partner who is willing to lose money in the name of experimentation – something government can’t often do.

If you’re interested in engaging citizens in policy, take a look at citizens’ juries.

More and more governments are involving citizens directly in decision-making. Over 2,500 cities, states and countries have tried participatory budgeting – where citizens suggest projects for government to take on, then vote for which they want acted on – while others have launched crowdfunding and direct feedback projects.

Some countries, like Australia and Canada, take citizen participation a step further by enlisting small, randomly selected groups of civilians to consult on big policy decisions. “Citizens’ juries” dissect issues in the same way a jury in a courtroom does: by looking at verified facts and figures and hearing evidence from experts and witnesses.

The Canadian and Australian governments have run these deliberative panels to make big policy decisions. Some say they foster a stronger sense of trust among citizens – a stark contrast to the anger and division ignited by referendums held in places like the UK, Catalonia, Spain and Quebec, Canada.

Canada and Australia have used citizen juries to make decisions about how to expand public transportation, whether to open a nuclear waste factory and how to care for the mentally ill. Studies show that when people take part in policymaking, they are more likely to be sympathetic to the complexity of government work.

If you’re interested in data-driven decision-making, take a look at data diversity.

“What we don’t measure, we don’t work on,” said Melinda Gates, whose foundation will spend $80 million over three years to eradicate the “gender data gap.”

Big data is indispensable to the functioning of government – it allows for policy based on evidence, rather than guesswork – but too often, it isn’t representative of the entire population. There’s a growing recognition that without data disaggregated by gender, policy won’t have much regard for women or other marginalised groups.

To fix this problem, Australia is pioneering the Individual Deprivation Measure(IDM), a gender-sensitive data tool that measures poverty on an individual level, rather than by household. The reality is that an elderly grandmother and her twenty-something grandson may live under the same roof but experience deprivation in a host of different ways. Currently, we don’t capture those differences, burying inequalities within the home, which makes it more difficult for government to target policies to the world’s poor. In Nepal, a trial revealed that on average, men own 61% more assets than women – a figure hidden when measuring assets by household.

In 2018, the city of Santiago will begin collecting and analysing transportation and mobile phone data at to figure out how and why women use the city differently than men. For example, we know women divert their routes based on factors like whether they will be crammed into a crowded subway carriage or dropped off at an unsafe or unlit bus stop. This data could help government reconfigure the city for improved safety and ease of use.

If you’re interested in cities’ role in climate change, take a look at forest cities.

In 2017, cities emerged as leaders in the fight against climate change – which makes sense, as they are home to half the world’s population and produce about 75% of greenhouse gas emissions.

Stefano Boeri, an Italian architect, is helping cities rebuild greenspace to ward off climate change. He began with the famous Bosco Verticale in Milan, a skyscraper complex outfitted as a “vertical forest” with 900 trees. Now, he’s helping China rebuild entire metropolises as “forest cities”.

Liuzhou Forest City in southern China, the first to be built, will be home to 30,000 people by 2020. The self-contained neighbourhood will house about 70 buildings, including homes, hospitals, schools and offices, all of which will be covered with 40,000 trees and a million plants. Solar panels on the roof will power the buildings.

The greenery will be key to fighting the air pollution that threatens citizens’ health. It will absorb 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year, while producing 900 tonnes of oxygen and lowering the air temperature. A second project is in the works near Shijiazhuang, an industrial area in northern China that is consistently ranked as one of the country’s 10 most polluted cities.

If you’re interested in training employees for the skills of the future, take a look at how to recruit more young people, women and minorities in government.

With technology becoming ever present in policymaking, it will be critical for public servants to pick up new skills. The most forward-thinking governments are helping their employees do so by providing online courses or stipends for continued learning. However, to ensure the continued growth of the civil service, it’s imperative to find new means of recruiting talent – particularly young people, women and minorities.

The British, Australian and Singaporean governments are already using an artificial intelligence platform, Applied, to strip public sector hiring of bias. The first tech venture of the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team – the world’s first “nudge” unit– uses behavioural science and machine learning to blind managers to identifiers like gender and ethnicity, allowing them to make decisions solely based on talent. Of the successful candidates chosen through the platform thus far, 60% would not have been hired through traditional recruitment processes.

However, it remains difficult to market the public service to young people. In the US, just 5.7% of college students say they want to work in government after graduation. In Canada, the average age of new permanent public service hires is 37.

In Australia, meanwhile, only 2.5% of public servants are under 25, down from 5% in 2007. “Young people are now an endangered species in the Australian public service,” warned an editorial in the Canberra Times.

Some governments are wising up to what young people want: shorter hiring processes, flexibility in the workspace and clear opportunity for advancement. Others have realised government needs something simple to attract younger hires: better marketing.

“[We say] ‘Come and work here and affect people’s everyday lives’, and we’re seeing a lot of young people apply for jobs here. I would say that’s the same for many cities in southern California. It’s on us to show potential employees that we are creative and innovative,” said Kate Mayerson, the City of West Hollywood’s Innovation Analyst.

“If government puts a little more time and effort into recruiting and really highlighting the amazing work it’s doing, I think it would be pretty easy to find people.”

This article was first published on Apolitical. To see the original, click here