The Department of Listening

"Department of Listening", by Greg Alder

One of the first actions of the new coalition government in Canberra was to axe the Climate Commission.

A week later, senior staff from the defunct Commission announced the formation of the independent Climate Council, because they felt that Australians deserved quality climate information.

Many Australians seemed to agree. The Climate Council used crowd funding to generate an operating budget. Within a week, it had raised $1 million in donations from concerned Australians.

In Queensland, there are plans to construct the world’s largest coal shipping facilities. Many people have expressed opposition to this.

There are two reasons cited. The first is that coal is a fuel responsible for a lot of the world’s carbon emissions and for this reason is being phased out in many countries, making the construction a shortsighted activity. The second is that construction of the facilities will involve dredging and dumping up to 20 million tonnes of seafloor in ecologically sensitive areas of the Great Barrier Reef.

A few days ago, the new Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, received a petition signed by a quarter of a million Australians calling for a rethink on the developments.

Other than both being environmental issues, the two events above are unrelated.

However, what’s at work in both cases is something undeniable – the rise of people power.

Social media has made it easy to share photos or videos – of animal cruelty in Indonesian abattoirs, illegal land clearing in Borneo, dolphin slaughter in Japan and rhino poaching in Africa. People around the world see and share these images with their friends. People Like Facebook pages of groups created to raise awareness or to fight injustice.

There have always been groups opposed to such issues. They are often regarded as nuisances by governments and big business.

However, thanks to social media, today’s dissenting voices are louder and more numerous. It is both easier and faster to garner support for a cause.

The Climate Council probably couldn’t have raised a million dollars in a week without social media. There probably wouldn’t have been 250,000 signatures on that petition if people couldn’t sign it online – by following links posted in social media.

The thing about social media is that it is a great place for people to voice their opinions. It is also a great place to read and listen to people’s opinions.

The Australian Labor Party very nearly imploded because those in control weren’t listening to the growing chorus of concern from without. When Kevin Rudd resumed leadership, one of his first actions was to give rank and file members of the party a say in who should lead it.

Governments and some businesses have not yet learnt the value of listening (as opposed to eavesdropping).

An exhibition opened recently at New York’s Guggenheim Museum. Titled Participatory Cities, it is an exhibition of 100 urban trends from the BMW Guggenheim Lab that operated in New York, Berlin and Mumbai.

One of these 100 ideas is the Department of Listening. The concept is this: governments create a department whose job is to receive and respond to citizen feedback. Technology – and social media – makes more responsive government possible.

One related concept to emerge from the Lab in New York was that of citizens prioritising government spending. In essence, the Department of Listening would invite input on how the government’s budget should be distributed.

Most elected governments wrongly believe they have been given a mandate to govern as they see fit – in accordance with the policies they announced pre-election.

However, government policies are like cable TV packages. There are a couple of policies you like, but they’re bundled with some others you don’t want. The government presumes that if you have voted for them, you agree with all of their policies – and they act accordingly.

Today’s smart leaders have learnt the importance of asking and, especially, of listening.

The leaders of the world’s most innovative companies (and most valued brands) are all great listeners. Their company’s innovations are often the result of listening to ‘what if’ and ‘wouldn’t it be great’ chatter in cyberspace.

Governments haven’t yet learnt the value of listening – and haven’t yet noticed the rise of people power.

You can bet that Tony Abbott was surprised that the Climate Council raised $1 million in a week from ordinary Australians. You can bet that Greg Hunt was surprised to receive a petition with 250,000 signatures.

Tomorrow’s smart governments won’t be so easily surprised.

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