Economics needs to become accessible to the public if we are to transform society. Jo Earle explains how we do it.
Economic decision making in the UK is highly centralised and technocratic. Economics and the economy are construed as “neutral” or “technical” spaces which ordinary citizens cannot engage with.
In politics, economic decisions which affect us all are taken often without effective public input or scrutiny. Media coverage of the economy focuses on macro aggregate indicators like GDP growth, unemployment, interest rates, inflation and productivity which often fail to reflect peoples’ lived experience of the economy.
All of this makes it harder for most people and organisations to have a public voice through which to articulate their experience of “the economy”, their priorities or their values, and in turn, they are less able to participate in conversation and decision-making on the economy.
The increasing political alienation of Welsh citizens is being discussed in cultural and political terms and Richard Wyn Jones has convincingly argued that Wales is an increasingly fragmented polity. My argument is that the current framing of the economy in politics and the media in Wales contributes importantly to this deep feeling of alienation and fragmentation.
Wales is in this respect not so different from the rest of the UK, in a recent YouGov/Economy poll found only one in ten respondents said that politicians and the media talk about economics in a way that is accessible and understandable.
Similarly, one third of respondents reported that they rarely paid attention to economic stories in the media despite the fact that four out of five recognised it was relevant to their everyday lives.
It is clear that to give citizens a greater sense of agency and connection we need a social, cultural and political shift in how we think about and act on the economy. There are at least four areas which need to be addressed to achieve this change:
1. Challenging preconceptions and sparking curiosity
The first stage of this work is to reframe what the economy is, build a sense of curiosity about the subject and ultimately raise awareness of alternatives to the status quo and how they can be achieved. We need a National Conversation on the Economy in Wales supporting civil society organisations to hold events bring people together in a schools and community hall and building regional and sectoral understanding of issues and possibilities of change.
Here a little creativity can go a long way. “We Need to Talk About the Economy” Pop Up Spaces can be set up in empty shop spaces on high streets, in community centres and in schools from anything from a day to a month or more. Vibrant design and welcoming atmosphere (think free tea and coffee) would aim to lure passers-by in. Interactive exhibits, taster workshops, a politician or senior economic policymaker inside having a brew with visitors, group discussions or whatever you can think of to reframe the economy, spark curiosity and get the community talking about what matters and how it can be achieved.
2. Building knowledge, skills and confidence
There is great inequality in access to economic knowledge (and therefore power) in Wales and the UK more broadly. The next stage of this shift is the provision of public education in local schools, community organisations, businesses and public services as well as online.
The aim is to provide everybody with the economic literacy, skills and agency to engage critically with dominant economic thinking as well as alternatives like the foundational economy approach.
This is important because it can also provide routes into local economic development initiatives, politics and the media, increasing the diversity, legitimacy and vibrancy of all of those spaces. Finally, it helps to build community ownership and leadership of this agenda, particularly among those who had previously felt alienated from the economy.
The risk here is that this feels disconnected from the Welsh Government. For this to be successful it must genuinely seek to demonstrate to people that this time it is different and that their knowledge, energy and skills are needed.
So from grassroots understanding we must build engagement with regional and Welsh national issues so Arfor and the Valleys have a voice. And we can’t forget the importance of sectoral issues and choices in health, education and care.
3. Having a conversation about what matters and how it can be achieved
A key shift then is to begin a conversation about the economy and economic issues related to people’s lived experience, priorities and values in their many identities as consumers and producers.
Reconnecting the economy to people’s lives then opens up space to identify communities, regions and sectors a want, need and would be prepared to do to improve their economies.
Mapping exercises looking at how consumption and production is organised and more deliberative democracy like last year’s citizens jury on care in Swansea can be used to develop plans which prioritise people’s needs and priorities as they express them.
We can amplify these conversations through social, local and national media and this can change the narrative on the economy by bringing forward non-expert citizens and issues which reflect real-life experiences and priorities.
By supporting a more diverse range of people to have a public voice on the economy through the media we can a) revitalise local economics reporting b) enable people currently alienated from politics and the economy to have a public voice on what matters to them and c) create the conditions for a vibrant public dialogue on the economy.
All this is not any kind of endorsement of Michael Gove’s “we have had enough of experts”. This is a call for a new kind of expert, and two way conversations between citizens and economic experts and decision makers to increase mutual understanding as a first step towards developing more participatory forms of economic policymaking.
4. Influencing decision making and shaping the economy
A key end goal for all of this work is to create processes and institutions which support meaningful citizen participation in and deliberation in economic conversation, decision making and activity.
Without this being a clear and explicit goal from the outset this work will fail to reach beyond those who already engage. There are many ways for this to be achieved through media, politics, campaigning and community economic development.
The thread that ties all of this together is that it is about regions and sectors supported by civil society organisations organising to build power and change how economic decisions are made in local authorities, the Welsh Government, Westminster and businesses.
Part of this is about challenging what is common sense on the economy and reframing “the economic” not as an end in itself but an intermediate output which gives citizens and communities more agency to pursue the things which matter to them.
There are already great examples in places like Bro Ffestiniog of this work being taken forward.
We hope that this momentum will continue to grow and that the Welsh Government will play a role in coordinating a broad social movement seeking to fundamentally reframe the economy in Welsh politics, society and culture.
In this Wales would truly be world leading: maybe we should call it the Welsh Way?
Economy works to support people across the UK to use economics to achieve what matters to them and to change how society thinks, talks and makes decisions about the economy.
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