What does it mean to be a responsible citizen in a time of crisis?
When faced with challenges of such a global scale, it may seem that individual citizens are powerless to make a difference. In fact, citizens have far more agency – the ability to shape the world, rather than being shaped by it – than ever before. Before the crisis, it was tempting to think that citizens are powerless in the face of giant corporations. But customer boycotts can spread rapidly by social media – indeed, the #DeleteUber and #boycottvolkswagen campaigns had substantial impact. Reviews can been by thousands of others, and employee departures are powerful since they’re the most important asset in many firms.
In my first two articles in this series, “Responsible Business in a Time of Crisis” and “Responsible Investing in a Time of Crisis”, I suggested that business leaders and investors ask themselves “What’s in my hand?” In other words, what resources does my company / investment firm have that I can use to serve wider society?
And the same question is one that citizens can ask themselves. Citizens’ agency is their ability to use what’s in their hand. That’s at least three things:
A key concept in the book is externalities – actions that affect wider society but don’t affect yourself. A responsible business is one that takes these externalities seriously – seeks to grow the pie (social value) rather than only its slice (profit). And the same goes for responsible citizenship.
Some externalities are negative, such as leaving the home for non-essential reasons, or panic buying. Choosing not to do so can literally save lives – citizens’ actions have larger consequences now than ever before. While we already know to self-isolate and not panic-buy, being mindful of our negative externalities can shape smaller, but still important choices.
For example, many of us increasingly order food through Deliveroo or Uber Eats. The delivery charge is the same for every eligible restaurant, so we often choose based only on food and price. But, selecting a restaurant close to you can minimise the negative externalities on an overworked driver.
Actions can also have positive externalities. In financial markets, two assets of equal value trade – an investor pays £100 for £100 of shares. But society is not a financial market. The key to service is to give gifts of unequal value – that are worth far more than the recipient than it costs you. These might include doing grocery shopping for an elderly or vulnerable neighbour, or video-chatting with someone who’s living alone.
The Ability to Bear a Greater Share of A Shrinking Pie
A responsible business is one that not only grows the pie, but also ensures that the gains are widely distributed. And when the pie shrinks, investors and executives must take a large hit to reduce their burden on others. Due to their disproportionate wealth, they have disproportionate ability to bear their share of a shrinking pie.
The same might apply to citizens. Some are in more privileged financial positions than others, and this is what’s in their hand. One friend has advanced-purchased 100 coffees from his local coffee shop, providing them with crucial liquidity. Another is offering small loans to the self-employed or small businesses, to be repaid over five years. Others still are tipping their cleaners even more than usual, not cancelling their gym memberships, or paying photographers and live bands for events right now, even if these events are postponed.
Words are often dismissed as trivial, particularly by hard-headed finance professors, but are a leading example of gifts of equal value. A genuine, sincere thank-you to a delivery driver, for bringing the package up to your apartment rather than leaving it on the ground floor, can go a long way. The same is true to an overworked store clerk, or doctor, nurse, or receptionist if we unfortunately find ourselves in a hospital.
But also words about our own situation are important. Even in non-crisis times, employees should be free to speak up if they’re finding things difficult – but often feel that doing so will lead to them being seen as insufficiently resilient or hard-working. The crisis has reduced any such undeserved stigma.
Those words might be as simple as notifying others that you’re looking after your kids. I received an auto-responder from a friend saying “I am working from home, with children, during the Covid-19 shutdown. Given the circumstances, I will not be able to respond as quickly as I otherwise would. I appreciate your patience.” Or, it may ask for time off to help others, or deal with your own mental or physical health issues. Even companies with the most demanding cultures recognise the severity of the crisis that we’re in and extend forbearance to employees. In two Gresham public lectures on Time Management and Mental and Physical Wellness, I pointed out that overwork and burnout are often caused by bosses simply being unaware of what else we’re going through, rather than a deliberate attempt to squeeze as much out of us as possible. It’s our right – and responsibility – to make them aware.
If there’s any silver lining to this devastating crisis, it’s that it will permanently inspire citizens to think about the positive and negative externalities of our actions – how we affect our neighbours – and permanently empower us to be open about the challenges we’re facing.