Juha Leppänen is the Chief Executive of Demos Helsinki. With a mandate to build a fair, sustainable and joyful next era, Juha helps national and local governments, businesses and NGOs to anticipate and lead societal transformation.

Let’s face it. During the last decade, liberal democracies have not been especially successful in steering societies through our urgent, collective problems. This is reflected in the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer Spring Update: A World in Trauma: Democratic governments are less trusted in general by their own citizens. While some governments have fared better than others, the trend is clear.

There are many reasons trust is falling, from social media noise to political populism. But the fundamental reason is a governance crisis: the grand societal challenges of our times — climate change, health crises and endemic inequalities — have not been and will not be solved by the very same industrial era approach to governance that created these problems in the first place.

At Demos Helsinki, we believe that solutions can be found and trust salvaged only if we infuse governments with humility. We define humility as the capability to recognise that leadership in the 21st century is not about having all the right answers, but about continuously learning and collaborating rigorously in inventive new ways.

Think of the responses to COVID-19. Before the pandemic hit, the United States was ranked highest in health security. But it turned out that we were preparing for the wrong pandemic. Leaders who thought they knew what to expect failed, and leaders who recognised the uncertainty and were humble towards the new virus, were able to manage better.

Three core challenges need to be addressed to rebuild trust and revitalise democracies (including the ones that hitherto score relatively well on trust like Finland and our neighbours in Scandinavia).

The first challenge is a widespread sense of detachment. Relationships of trust are built on the ability to see, influence, and test each other. However, in the past decade, governments have been too out-of-touch with their polities. This distance demotivates citizens from contributing to collective problem-solving and gives governments very little information on how people really feel about specific policies. As the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer shows clearly, trust is local. “My employer” enjoys a higher level of trust than business in general, governments, NGOs, and the media. 21st-century governance requires mechanisms to reestablish closeness and engagement.

The second challenge is fragmentation. An important but often ignored source of the decline in trust has taken place not outside, but within governments. At a time when an ability to collaborate is ever more important, traditional silos in government create blind spots resulting in ineffectiveness, slowness, and unproductive “gatekeeping” behaviour. Structural reforms are needed, including in budgeting processes, to provide room for cooperation both across silos and between governments and societal stakeholders at large.

The third challenge is purposelessness. Beyond its persistent failures to deliver, much of today’s policymaking lacks any clear goal or effective strategy for achieving it. In addition, the typical government’s habitual pretense of infallibility hinders its capacity to engage in effective long-term problem solving. To restore trust, policies from the top must take local considerations into account and be implemented with the clear purpose of solving the actual problems of people and communities on the ground.

So, how can humility help to solve this governance crisis?

Humility entails both a willingness to listen to different opinions, and a capacity to review one’s own actions in light of new insights. True humility does not need to be deferential. But embracing humility legitimises leadership by cultivating stronger relationships and greater trust among other political and societal stakeholders — particularly with those with different perspectives. In doing so, it can facilitate long-term action and ensure policies are much more resilient in the face of uncertainty.

There are several core steps to establishing humble governance:

  • Some common ground is better than none, so strike a thin consensus with the opposition around a broad framework goal. For example, consider carbon neutrality targets. To begin with, forging consensus does not require locking down on the details of how and what. Take emissions in agriculture. In this case all that is needed is general agreement that significant cuts in CO2 emissions in this sector are necessary in order to hit our national net zero goal. While this can be harder in extremely polarised environments, a thin consensus of some sort usually can be built on any problem that is already widely recognised — no matter how small. This is even the case in political environments dominated by populist leaders.
  • Devolve problem-solving systemically. First, set aside hammering out blueprints and focus on issuing a broad launch plan, backed by a robust process for governmental decision-making. Look for intelligent incentives to prompt collaboration. In the carbon neutrality example, this would begin by identifying where the most critical potential tensions or jurisdictional disputes lie. Since local stakeholders tend to want to resolve tensions locally, give them a clear role in the planning. Divide up responsibility for achieving goals across sectors of the economy, identify key stakeholders needed at the table in each sector, and create a procedure for reviewing progress. Collaboration can be incentivised by offering those who participate the ability, say, to influence future regulations, or by penalising those who refuse to take part.
  • Revise framework goals through robust feedback mechanisms. A truly humble government’s steering documents should be seen as living documents, rather than definitive blueprints. There should be regular consultation with stakeholders on progress, and elected representatives should review the progress on the original problem statement and how success is defined. Where needed, the government in power can use this process to decide whether to reopen discussions with the opposition about how to revise the current goals.

In this era of sharply divided parties and bombastic populists promising the earth, what we have just described may sound like a fantasy. Yet we know this approach can work. As our partner in humble governance work, Columbia LawSchool professor Charles F. Sabel, points out, one of the best historic examples of humble governance (before it had the name) was the Montreal Protocol of 1987. That agreement remains to this day arguably the most successful example of global environmental governance and the reason why we do not worry much about the ozone layer any more.

Before the Montreal Protocol, climate treaty negotiators wrongly assumed that solutions to this inherently global problem also had to be global. Instead, what ultimately made it successful was the way it leapt past consensus and spurred pockets of action and innovation across many different industries, sectors, and local environments. Eventually, this bottom-up approach fostered not only broad commitment, but also collectively shared results: a real-life lesson in how humble, small steps can lead to extraordinary outcomes.

Currently, the state of Colorado is working with Demos Helsinki to develop a decision-making model for infrastructure investment that also enhances and promotes equity. In the past, infrastructure decisions have typically been top-down heavy, with limited citizen engagement, and have often been the source of inequality between different communities. The goal of deploying the humble governance model here is to recognise that the State does not hold all the answers and needs the collaboration of local administrations and Coloradoans to better steer a historic influx of federal funding in public infrastructure, not seen in seven decades. There is an opportunity to start righting the wrongs of the past and to start building together a more equitable future. What does success look like? The investments made through the infrastructure package are felt to have a purpose to people living in the state of Colorado because they can be seen clearly to solve their specific current and future problems. This ongoing work was featured in September at Berlin’s Creative Bureaucracy Festival (yes, really!), where Demos Helsinki and the Finnish Government also received an award for developing the model.

In Finland, we started to develop the humble governance model with our Prime Minister’s Office in 2020. The Prime Minister of Finland, Sanna Marin, may be widely known for being one of the youngest heads of government in the world, but her early response to COVID-19 is a great example of practical humility. Instead of only trusting the advice from technocrats, as happened in some countries, or turning on them, as others did, she humbly stressed the uncertainty around the virus, and from that made the case for a form of decisive action which has been praised widely fort its effectiveness. (She made some wrong moves recently, however, making headlines at home and abroad for going clubbing when she should have been quarantining. Still, as a humble leader would be the first to point out, nobody’s perfect.)

Democratic systems can only really work when they are underpinned by sufficient levels of trust. It is time for our governments to start playing to their strengths whilst enabling others to play to theirs, and so earn back the trust of the people.

Today, we are using the humble governance model to accelerate the development and implementation of sustainable timber construction, bringing together the Finnish Ministry of Environment and key stakeholders such as cities and construction companies. In this instance, transformation requires multiple simultaneous changes in regulation, supply-chain composition, competence, design and zoning. This is being built on the thin consensus that timber should be the new normal in urban construction by 2030.

As more and more governments wake up in 2022 to the need to change old, failed ways of working, humble governance offers the way forward.

What’s certain is that the zeitgeist has changed. Ask most citizens today and you will hear them tell you that governments are no longer expected to hold all the answers. The way forward will not be found in the old debate about the size of government, whether it is too big or too small. Instead, policy makers need to set an entirely different direction and acknowledge the need for both new language and new ways of engaging with the governed on tackling the key challenges of our times.

History tells us two things. First, that liberal democracies thrive under conditions of experimentation, analysis, and deliberation. And second, that democratic systems can only really work when they are underpinned by sufficient levels of trust. It is time for our governments to start playing to their strengths whilst enabling others to play to theirs, and so earn back the trust of the people.