Over the last decades the social fabric of modern socio-economies has evolved considerably. Globalization, rapid technological change and the emergence of an ever more active and demanding citizenry have generated high levels of uncertainty and put pressure on existing private, public and social arrangements. The new arrangements that have been put in place have had to take into account many different stakeholders, and consequently have generated a need for trade-offs among different points of view, logics and value systems. Ethics has become part and parcel of governing, and this has created new challenges for those charged with communicating both inside organizations and with the external world.
Section 1 sketches the broad outlines of the significant drift from “big G” (top-down and command-and-control government) to “small g” (horizontal and collaborative governance) in private, public and social organizations. Section 2 highlights a few basic concepts that are necessary to map out the new challenges for communication and ethics in organizations where power, resources and information are so widely distributed that nobody is in charge. Section 3 tackles three basic questions faced by public sector communication specialists in particular in this new governance setting: speaking truth to power, dealing with a minister’s office, and dealing with “spin”. While these questions are of key importance in the public sector context, mutatis mutandis they are important in all sectors. Section 4 sketches what might be a useful strategy to cope with these challenges. It does not aim at providing a solution to a puzzle but only a family of responses to a set of complex problems.
The great reconfiguration
One of the major changes observed in modes of governing over the last while, in response to the growing turbulence in the environment, has been the drift from centralized and hierarchical governing structures toward arrangements that are more decentralized and collaborative. This has been observed in private, public and social concerns. A philosophy of subsidiarity (promoting the delegation of authority for decision to the local level so as to bring it as close as possible to the situation where decisions can be made effectively and fruitfully) has permeated the governing structures of most organizations (Paquet, 1999) and has made coordination and collaboration a central feature of governing, but also the reconciliation of various conflicting values and ethical thinking styles part of the daily task.
In the old configuration, the pyramidal top-down accountability structure was the rule and “petit eichmanism” the moral consequence – i.e., following orders blindly was a way to avoid facing moral dilemmas (Bennis, 1976:54). The new configuration of governance was brought forth by the realization that in this complex and rapidly evolving world, nobody is in charge, no one has all the information, resources and power to govern top down. One must rely on collective intelligence: an empowerment of agents close to the ground and the use of mechanisms of effective cooperation among them. We have stylized this drift as a move from “big G” governing to “small g” governing – from Government to governance. It is not a matter of choice: it is necessary if the organization is to be able to compete effectively with its “opponents” and to collaborate just as efficiently with its partners and allies.