Creating a Real Dialogue with Citizens: A Vision of “Day-to-Day” Democracy – Canadian Government Executive

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September 18, 2015

Creating a Real Dialogue with Citizens: A Vision of “Day-to-Day” Democracy

Written by  Benjamin Selinger and Gabriel Flores

A real challenge for Canada is that citizens, especially those who are a part of the under-30 demographic, do not feel adequately engaged by their civic institutions. The concern with this reality is that one of the fundamental pillars of responsible government, an engaged citizenry, appears to be disillusioned and disengaged. We are concerned that democracy is in trouble.

Our idea is “Day-to-Day Democracy” (D2DD). It was borne out of a conviction that Canada’s democratic health could be strengthened if governments gave citizens real feedback on their consultations regarding policy.

To achieve this end, governments can leverage their current Information Communication Technology (ICT) framework to begin a constructive and ongoing dialogue with their citizens. D2DD is a means to do more with less while doing so in a visible way. It is a method to strengthen the e-consultation process by way of improving current consultation frameworks so that citizen participation in policymaking improves.

According to Diana Farrell and Andrew Goodman of McKinsey & Co., governments are facing “a daunting paradox.” On the one hand, they operate in increasingly complex and ever-changing environments where they must deliver on several policy objectives. On the other hand, governments are also faced with shrinking budgets, debt burdens, and eroding public trust. As such, in order to maintain the confidence of citizens, governments are expected to do more with less, while at the same time being seen to deliver on its promises.

In 2010, Waterloo University Institute of Well-Being released a report on democratic engagement. Using their Democratic Engagement Model, they assessed individual, government, and global engagement. There were several noteworthy findings including:

  • Roughly half of Canadians are not satisfied with the way democracy works within their borders;
  • Canadians are less involved in traditional political activities compared to non-traditional ones;
  • Fewer Canadians are voting, or with less frequency (only 59.1% of eligible voters voted in the 2008 election); and,
  • Between 1997 and 2010 the proportion of Canadians who felt that federal government policies had an effect on their lives ranged from 6% to 20%.

Lynne Slotek, former CEO of the Institute of Well-Being states, “Too many Canadians feel that their voices are not being heard; that their efforts to influence government policy are ignored or inconsequential; and, that the decisions their elected representatives are making reflect neither their values nor their concerns.”

Additionally, Samara — a nonprofit and non-partisan advocacy group for citizen engagement and participation — annually releases “Democracy 360,” a report card on the state of Canada’s democracy. The 2015 report awarded Canada’s democracy a grade of “C”, meaning Canada is not at par with what would be deemed an acceptable level given its wealth.

A good example of our D2DD’s approach is the UK’s National Health Service “Change Day” and the subsequent international “Change Days” that followed. “Change Day” is a collective grassroots social movement that is facilitated by ICT, which was supported by the top and led from the bottom up. When change is introduced in large-scale organizations, it is often welcomed with resistance. It is a unique example of how a change initiative can be successfully implemented within a large-scale organization. The lesson learned from “Change Day” is that successful long lasting transformational changes can be achieved when managers actively involve and value the insights offered by an entire organization across horizontal and vertical boundaries.

Although the primary objective of “Change Day” is to attract pledges to improve organizational performance, the point of D2DD is to reconnect citizens and public servants in a dialogue of democratic participation. Citizens and bureaucracies are deeply intertwined: Change Day serves to attract public servants and citizens to effect positive policy change. It also creates a pool of prospective participants for government consultations that can be tailored to those individuals and group preferences and interests. As such, the e-consultations process becomes one in which government solicits input from ordinary Canadians directly through such vehicles as Facebook and Google whereby ads are matched to user preferences.

D2DD is an opportunity to improve organizational performance and the e-consultations process. Once in place, D2DD can demonstrate to Canadians how their voices matter, i.e., via a democratically accessible transparent digital platform. It also reconnects public servants with each other and the public they serve.

D2DD can also address the blockage in administrative reforms present in the post 1982-era (Robert P. Shepherd and Lori Turnbull shed light on that reality in their CGE article last November). If administrative reforms can be modeled around activities such as D2DD they may offer the possibility of reconnecting the public service with ministers and accordingly lead to more effective reforms.

D2DD aligns itself naturally with the four guiding principles of the federal Blueprint 2020exercise, but it would have the impact of making e-consultations far more substantive. Canadians would feel that their voices matter, and public servants would have the opportunity to be better engaged with the public. This is our vision for a better Canada: a public service that is more engaged with the public and effective at strengthening citizens’ democratic ethos.

Additional Reading:

Robert P. Shepherd and Lori Turnbull, “Public service reform: It’s about leadership”, CGE, 20, 9, Nov 2014. http://canadiangovernmentexecutive.com/leadership/item/1696-public-service-reform-its-about-leadership.html

 

This essay was the winner of the Institute of Public Administration of Canada (IPAC), and the Canadian Association of Programs in Public Administration (CAPPA) National Student Essay Competition on the future of the Public Service. The two authors are MA students in the School of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University Ottawa, Ontario Canada.

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