The world is reverberating with popular demand for change. From the coordinated climate actions held by citizens around the world to protest marches on the streets of Hong Kong, Santiago, Bogota, Tehran and London, society is voicing its discontent. Governments will need to start listening if they hope to understand and address the root causes.

Climate change took center stage this past year, perhaps best epitomized by Greta Thunberg’s ‘dressing down’ of world leaders at the UN. But it is not the only issue driving social discontent. The protests in Chile started as a student action against high bus prices. The riots in Tehran were sparked by increases in energy prices. Plans to reduce fuel subsidies led to days of unrest in Ecuador. Infrastructure is a common theme.

This isn’t just a series of isolated incidents and failures. What we are seeing is people expressing their disillusionment with their government institutions and their public leadership. Social media and smartphones are helping to give many citizens a new voice, allowing them to coordinate and express their frustration. They are not waiting for the next election to make their feelings known (although ballot box results are, in many cases, asking for profound change).

Unfortunately, many governments have been caught on the back foot, unsure how to respond. Some have attempted to maintain the status quo by labelling the protesters as disgruntled and skirting the issues. Others have thrown their lots in with the protesters, in an attempt to placate voters and polish their credentials.

Government’s primary role is to be a good steward of their country’s future. The problem is that balancing the needs and expectations of the current generation with the responsibility and sustainability owed to future generations is becoming more complex and controversial. Both the medium and the message have changed.

Finding that balance will require governments to be better informed, more forward-looking and consultative, leveraging new approaches and new technologies that make public expression/consultation much easier, more cost effective and timelier. They will need to start tapping into non-traditional feedback channels like social media while addressing deep-seated concerns about privacy. Governments will need to improve their mastery of data and analytics if they hope to remain true representatives of the people.

Yet it is not just citizen needs that have changed. It is also their expectations. As consumers, citizens are seeing massive improvements in personalization and ‘customer-centricity’. They expect the same from their governments. Leaders will need to rethink the role that governments play in citizen’s lives, moving away from department-by-department transactional relationships and towards a much more holistic, citizen-centric environment.

More than anything perhaps, governments will need to do a much better job of listening to people, interpreting the signals and understanding the root causes of their discontent. They also need to be articulating and explaining the decisions they make and the policies they develop. Citizens need to be able to understand and buy into the complex choices that are being made and the rationale that supports them. This will not only bring greater transparency, it will also help inform the discussion, improve the quality of debates and, perhaps, quell some of the public discontent.

Denying the problems will not make the protestors go away; don’t expect the social discontent being played out on the streets and on social media to cease any time soon. But do expect many governments to start seeing this as a wake-up call that creates an opportunity to improve the way they make decisions, serve citizens and deliver a better quality of life for all.

Look back: What did we predict? In 2019, we predicted that “consumers [will] seek a larger voice in their infrastructure options… future infrastructure plans will need to be informed by real-time and predictive customer insights rather than historical patterns and expert opinion.”

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