- By Jamie Shea
As 2021 approaches its halfway point, we find ourselves well into a new era of systemic stress. From pandemics and disinformation to the impacts of climate change to malign actors threatening our critical systems using disruptive technologies, our models of democratic governance are under increasing pressure and our prosperity seems increasingly fragile. Our resilience is tested now more than it has been in decades.
While there are numerous definitions for the term ‘resilience’ in use today, UN General Assembly Resolution 71/276 describes it as “the ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate, adapt to, transform and recover from the effects of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions through risk management.”
As we are learning now during the pandemic, the degree to which we are being forced to prioritise resilience at the expense of efficiency is just a small taste of what may be required to address future challenges. These are among the headaches policy planners face as they seek to anticipate the required solutions and adaptations for maintaining resilience in the face of climate change, globalisation, urbanisation, technological advances and future pandemics.
In terms of conventional defence, resilience is the foundation upon which deterrence is built. No nation can mount an effective territorial defence while degraded by undue external influences, loss of control of critical infrastructure, critical supply chain disruption, network intrusions, corrupting actions aimed at decision-makers and disinformation campaigns which divide their societies.
The vast majority of public investments in Europe – over 70% – are made by local and regional governments
Authoritarian competitors know this, which is why they are pursuing a strategy of eroding Western effectiveness without fighting – by weakening our national and societal resilience. Thus far, our focus has largely been on national and multilateral solutions and yet we seem to be missing an important perspective. While the European Union, NATO and their member states’ national plans, policies and resources are vital and important to building resilience, the majority of them are executed at the local and regional levels.
The breakdown in the fabric of a society starts one thread at a time and this can be first seen, prevented and repaired at the local level.
In recent years, Europe has become increasingly aware of the vital importance of local authorities and the role they play in so many factors that impact the continent’s future. The vast majority of public investments in Europe – over 70% – are made by local and regional governments and fully 70% of EU legislation is implemented at the local level. Local actors live and work in and among the communities they serve – they are not only closer to the people, they are the people.
In the face of natural and manmade disasters, local authorities are the ‘first responders’ to deliver relief and restore vital services. The UN Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction recognises the vital role of local authorities in effective response, building resilience and restoring communities.
When it comes to integrating migrants into society, local authorities prove time and time again that they produce the most effective solutions and best practices. The same trend is emerging on countering disinformation, with local actors providing some of the most effective and workable solutions.
Local leaders are also perceived as more likely to listen to citizens
Even the security of key national government installations and critical infrastructure requires close cooperation and reliance on local authorities to keep them secure.
Both the UN and the EU’s Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) advocate for a more community centric approach to building societal resilience to detect, prevent and address violent extremism. To paraphrase former US House of Representatives speaker Tip O’Neill; all resilience is local.
Yet despite the local level being critical in delivering on so many important functions, the local perspective often gets left out of important discussions and exercises, not to mention the formulation of laws and policies that deal with resilience and internal security.
According to the most recent report of the Edelman Trust Barometer, we are living in an era of low trust and trust for governments is at 53%, a full eight points behind that for the private sector at 61% and behind NGOs at 57%. But within the government sector, local governments are more trusted than national ones by a noticeable margin, notably 11% in France, 9% in Germany and 6% in the Netherlands.
Local leaders are also perceived as more likely to listen to citizens, no doubt due to their proximity and ease of access. Going beyond local governments and actors in general, the same Edelman survey indicated 69% of respondents trust “people in their local community”.
When faced with the challenge of vaccine hesitation, trust in local family doctors and public health officials has proven to be among the few proven effective means of convincing the hesitant.
Local and regional authorities need more than just financial resources
In short, in a time when trust is in low supply, local actors remain our most reliable source within our societies. And societal resilience is built not only on competence, but on trust in the institutions that deliver it. Given the even higher levels of public trust in the private sector and the important role they play in resilience to hybrid threats and systemic stress, how can public-private partnerships with civil society at the local level be strengthened to more effectively improve resilience?
By focusing more of our resilience efforts at the local level, we can increase our chance to detect and start addressing problems when they are small instead of waiting until they are big enough to gain national or international attention. Here are three ways how we can do it.
First of all, given that citizens tend to trust local actors more than those in capitals, new efforts should be made to resource and enable local authorities to build resilience in their communities. During peacekeeping operations in the Balkans throughout the 1990s, the concept of the ‘strategic corporal’ emerged given the critical nature of localised actions and their consequences for the broader effort. During our current era of systemic stress and hybrid campaigns, we see the emergence of the ‘strategic mayor’ whose wise decisions and early efforts can make a difference in whether a problem can spread further or be contained and solved locally. And yet despite this new level of frontline accountability, they still hold little to no influence over the broader national factors which are vital to local resilience. Overcoming this imbalance in the strategic mayor’s accountability to authority ratio is a matter requiring urgent attention.
What kind of resources and authorities does that strategic mayor need so she can best lead her community in times of crisis? For example, national procurement guidelines can hamstring local recovery efforts if they do not give local officials the flexibility they need to procure supplies when factors other than lowest price are paramount. Moreover, local and regional authorities need more than just financial resources but also support from certain capacities that only national governments possess, including military, intelligence and supplemental health capabilities.
Different Europe-wide networks such as Eurocities do good work in advancing local interests and providing advice on these topics but the European Commission and national capitals can do more to enable local actors.
Sharing information and exercising together allows us to build trusted relationships early
Secondly, focus should be placed on building trusted partnerships. So many of the vital services we seek to protect and restore in times of crisis are found in the private sector, such as energy, communications, food supply, transportation and financial systems. These are also the first targets of hybrid actors seeking to disrupt and weaken our governance. At the same time, local civil society groups such as NGOs and volunteers form the backbone of bringing early relief to the people most impacted by natural and manmade disasters and disruptions. As we’ve already seen, both the private sector and NGOs are more trusted than national governments and local governments are more trusted than those in the capitals.
Thus, building and growing whole-of-society resilience efforts among local authorities, local private companies and civil society is vital not only to delivering results, but in building trust within our societies prior to any crisis. Specifically, building these partnerships enables early detection and more effective response to crisis, plus creates an information network that is more trusted by the people in their communities. These partnerships are built through three main efforts: information sharing, conducting crisis exercises and working together on policy formulation.
In particular, exercises give us a new understanding of each other’s perspectives and can identify previously unseen areas for mutual support. More importantly, sharing information and exercising together allows us to build trusted relationships early rather than seeking to establish them during a crisis. This is critically important because you can’t surge trust.
Building trust and mutual understanding in these ways also creates a positive dynamic for working together to formulate policy since many of the barriers to understanding each other’s perspectives have been removed. Inclusion of national representatives in all of these efforts also builds trust between the local and national level and ensures the local and national perspectives are shared and discussed to achieve a continuous common situational awareness.
A bottom-up mindset can allow local communities’ ideas and voices to lead on the formulation of solutions
Finally, big national interventions and one-size-fits-all solutions seldom deliver the desired results when it comes to building resilience. That said, local and regional governments don’t exist in a vacuum. They still require national structures to establish policy frameworks and provide critical resources, but changing the way we approach it can make a real difference.
Instead of creating resilience legislation from the top-down, adopting a bottom-up mindset can allow local communities’ ideas and voices to lead on the formulation of solutions. Such legislation should also give local authorities the freedom to tailor programmes to their communities so they can deliver more effective prevention and response efforts.
Allowing those closest to the problems to come up with ideas for solutions not only results in more effective policies, it can help to restore faith in democracy and bring people closer to their own capitals as well as to the EU.
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- By Yamina Saheb