Creating space for transformative conversations

Civic Engage Op-Ed: The Hill Times

February 02, 2017
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by Robin Prest and Sebastian Merz

To stem populist tide, government must embrace engagement

In Canada, there’s a 15 per cent gap between the trust levels displayed by elites and those of average citizens—double what it was last year.

The inauguration of Donald Trump on January 20 is more than an American phenomenon. It is the latest episode in a larger story of democratic breakdown taking place across many of Canada’s closest friends and allies.

This statement is not partisan sentiment, but rather a reflection of the rapid decline in trust across liberal democracies. The just-released 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer reports that “trust is in crisis around the world” and that citizens trust corporations “to do what is right” more than the governments that serve them.

This is a statistic worth watching, all the more so because one year ago the same publication all but predicted the likes of Brexit and Trump. It was then that Edelman reported new lows in suspicion towards government among the mass populations in Britain and the United States compared to the levels of trust displayed by the elites.

If the United States is the latest canary in our global coal mine, then Canadians must learn from its experience so that we can guard against a similar fate. After all, our own trust inequality has almost doubled since last year to a now 15% gap between the trust levels displayed by elites and those of average citizens.

Attempts to reform our voting system currently underway could strengthen the link between voter intentions and the results of elections. Yet the act of voting will only go so far, and election campaigns will always remain a time of simple narratives and adversarial approaches.

What Canadians need is sustained and purposeful engagement between elections, so that the actions of our elected representatives can be deeply rooted in the interests and values of the citizens they represent.

Such a vision would require exposing the public policy process to greater scrutiny, so that the voices of citizens and stakeholders are at least placed on equal footing with other sources of power and influence.

This next generation of public engagement should not be confused with the populist waves that have brought Brexit and similar challenges to representative democracy. In fact, these events suggest a public that is lashing out because it lacked more productive means to be heard (this is not to ignore other factors, such as the role of white nationalism, which require their own concerted actions to counter).

The argument that citizens cannot be trusted to provide sound judgement does not stand up to the evidence. When the United States government sat at the brink of default in 2010 because of partisan bickering, the non-profit AmericaSpeaks brought together thousands of citizens to review the options and hear each other’s perspectives. Low and behold, these “average” people agreed upon common sense recommendations to balance the American budget when Congress could not.

In Oregon, a randomly selected citizens’ review panel meets before each referendum to identify the most critical information that voters need to know. Studies have now proven that receiving these neutral educational materials significantly impacts how voters cast their ballots.

Canada is no slouch either in this expanding area of democratic practice. From the Romanow Commission on the future of Health Care in Canada, to the BC Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, to the Alberta Climate Dialogues, we have demonstrated the ability of our citizens to tackle complex issues.

What these examples have in common is that they recognize that public engagement can no longer be viewed as a simple means to get buy-in or show good faith. Public engagement can no longer stop after hearing from self-selected interest groups or the “same ten people.” Instead, we must seek out participation by the full range of interests and provide the opportunity for participants to engage with each other in meaningful dialogue.

We must also recognize that the choice between expert opinion and public input is a false one. Experts must continue to provide us with fact-based information, and can help to ground our discussions by framing options and trade-offs. This role is enhanced, not contradicted, when the public contextualizes these trade-offs within their values and interests.

New ways of engaging the public can enhance relationships between citizens and their own communities. This outcome can help to re-establish trust in critical media, in fact-based information and in proponents of ideas and opinions other than our own—in other words the life-blood of a healthy democracy.

What we need now is to move beyond a series of one-offs and make next generation public engagement business as usual. First and foremost, this change will require upfront work by elected officials to clarify before engagement hits the streets how they plan to use public input and how they will stay engaged with the public.

Embracing this change is no small task, but governments across Canada have a range of expertise and experiences to build upon. It’s time to forge ahead with this new way of engaging Canadians — the stakes may be higher than any of us realise.

This article originally appeared in The Hill Times on January 25, 2017.