Defending democracy through public engagement

In my years of political observation, I have come to realize that elected officials individually have little opportunity to influence public policy. At senior levels of government, power has concentrated in the offices of the first minister. In local governments and school boards, power is held largely by professional administrators. Public input is tolerated by the power holders, but not welcomed.

Premier Gordon Campbell Gordon promised in the 2001 election campaign to hold an open cabinet meeting every month. He said BC would have “the most open, accountable and democratic government in Canada.” BC Liberals told us that important decisions would no longer be made behind closed doors.

The promises were quickly forgotten, but John Horgan talked before May 2017 about openness and accountability in the BC government. NDP pledges were also discarded.

Public Agenda is an American nonprofit organization aiming to strengthen democracy and expand opportunity for citizens to participate directly in decision-making. They believe that excluding the public damages our now fragile democracy and suggest changes:

We already have an infrastructure, of sorts, for public engagement: our institutions maintain a number of official opportunities for participation, which already take up a great deal of time, money, and political capital: picture your typical public meeting, where citizens have three minutes at the microphone to address their public officials. Most of these official avenues for engagement are frustrating for both citizens and officials—they may even reduce trust in government. 

Most of this existing civic infrastructure does not support newer, more successful kinds of engagement. It is not suited to the needs of citizens or officials and it is out of step with the way people live today. Across party lines, Public Agenda’s research found that Americans favor democratic reforms that would give them greater authority and voice, along with more equitable, deliberative, collaborative relationships with their governments.

These reforms and practices include engagement commissions, large-scale deliberative processes, serious games, participatory budgeting, citizen’s assemblies, SMS-enabled discussions, youth voice programs, and many others. These kinds of reforms have already been instituted in other countries, from Iceland to Taiwan to Colombia.

What Is Civic Infrastructure and Why Is It Important?

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.

Frederick Douglass

Categories: Accountability, Democracy

3 replies »

  1. Hey Norm …the link in the following text, of your article, is not working:

    What Is Civic Infrastructure and Why Is It Important?


  2. This would also apply to credit unions, unions and non-profits where professional administrators have weaseled their way in, usually on the pretext that since said boards are largely made up of volunteers. Administrators argue that they’re needed or else unions, etc, would be a total mess.


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