Citizen engagement: The overarching solution

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Welcome to rabble.ca's extended series on the Canadian left -- Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons: A progressive dialogue on the future of Canada -- a look at where it stands after the 2011 federal election, and what the future can hold. The series will run in this, rabble.ca's 10th year, and is curated by journalist Murray Dobbin.

Experts know the overarching solution to all of the big problems we face. You can find it in the last 10 pages of any book on a large-scale problem such as climate change or sustainable cities or childcare or food security. In the last chapter every author echoes every other. The solution is more citizen engagement.

So how do we increase citizen engagement? Good question, because at this point virtually every author just ends the book. Not even a hint about how to do citizen engagement. If this is the ultimate solution, a few suggestions would be helpful since the number of citizens regularly involved in public affairs is less than 10 per cent.

How strange we see nothing amiss in detailing every aspect of big problems, but leave solutions undefined. Why become aware of the mess, if we can't do anything about it? Maybe we assume that any large-scale problem automatically lacks any clear way forward. Or maybe large problems are paralyzing and that's all there is to it. But there could be a purpose to the silence around the solution of citizen engagement.

All societies are biased in favour of stability. Without this bias, the inventiveness that constructed a society in the first place would go on to create something else. But a bias for stability has a downside; it gets in the way of making changes when changes are necessary. If experts see citizen engagement as the ultimate problem-solving mechanism; it is unavoidably the ultimate change mechanism. It is this threat of change that has blockaded citizen involvement, and produced a resilient system of social and political institutions that appear to respond to demands for change, without changing much at all. Together they make a "rubber room" from which escape is difficult.

Still, we feel fundamental change is necessary, because so much is not as it should be.

We feel increasingly dissatisfied with life defined by work, shopping and entertainment. But we can't seem to change it. We are disturbed by the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, but we can't seem to reverse it. We feel uneasy about unequal pay for work of equal value, but can't seem to move toward fairness. Our neighbours to the south strive to end the practice of buying political outcomes, but can't seem to stop it. We worry about the threat of climate change, but can't seem to slow it. We yearn for an economic system free of parasitic bankers, but can't shed the role of host. The list goes on and on.

When will we be willing to tolerate some instability in order to make pressing changes? When will the clouds be dark enough? When will the darkness help us see clearly? We can either go on wringing our hands over the number and depth of large-scale problems, or we can do something about it. If we decide it's time for fundamental change, the only way of moving forward is to try to figure out why change has been so difficult.

Escape from the rubber room is not easy because the walls are invisible. We don't feel trapped when we seem to have plenty of choices, when all around us people act as if they are free to chart their own course through life. But let's suppose we begin to ask some difficult questions. Let's suppose we wonder about generally accepted definitions of a good life. Let's suppose we begin reading books on genuine progress, the real value of time, the decline of happiness in market societies and the importance of social relationships to our overall sense of well-being. Let's suppose, as a result, the rubber room slowly becomes uncloaked, to use a handy Star Trek concept. With the walls now visible, who would not begin to look for a way out?

If we examine the rubber room up close we see it is made of popular assumptions that prevent significant change by shunting citizens to the sidelines. As bearers of these beliefs, we are the protectors of stability, even when it's not in our own interest. There is a long list of stabilizing beliefs that are damaging, unhealthy, and/or at odds with what we know.

For example, we believe we've reached the highest practical level of democracy, even though our system only qualifies as "weak democracy," according to Benjamin Barber. In Canada, we believe in technocratic control, with government running public affairs between elections without much citizen involvement.

We believe our majoritarian electoral system is fair, even though a federal party goes that boosts its seats from 37 to 103 actually winds up less able to influence public policy.

We believe in the old "vending-machine" model of local government where the city delivers services in return for taxes paid, even though local government is the place to start building citizen engagement. Canadian cities have largely ignored a collaborative "barn-building" model for governance, even though the City County Management Association, the international association for city managers, recommends that all cities work in partnership with their citizens. What passes for citizen engagement in most Canadian cities are hit-and-run processes cobbled together to mollify potentially angry residents.

In Canada, we believe community groups are incompetent and not worth funding, even though research shows that investing in the grassroots is one of the best ways of spending money.

A study conducted in the U.S. by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy this year showed that $1 invested in the community saw a return in benefits of between $89 and $157. Money invested in citizens' organizations is multiplied by the volunteer effort it brings forth.

We believe full-time employment is normal and virtuous, even though it makes civic engagement next to impossible. Full-time workers are just too tired and short of time to participate in public affairs. For working women with children the problem is even more acute. The U.S. League of Women Voters did a large-scale study in 1999. The women they interviewed overwhelmingly wanted to be more involved in their communities, but most just didn't have the time.

Many people believe that taking part in civic processes is a waste of time. This belief is not entirely unfounded. The public hearing process that vets major projects is a long, frustrating, and virtually useless routine for resolving conflicts to anyone's satisfaction. Who would not conclude their time is being wasted when hearings have to be repeatedly carried over to the following night even though speakers have nothing new to say, and less-than-interested politicians seem to have their minds already made up?

We believe young people are the agents of social change, even though most young people are distracted by school, personal relationships, and building a career.

We believe retired people are only good for looking after gardens and grandchildren, even though they have a wealth of experience, time to participate, and the skepticism of 60s counterculture.

We believe online activism is the new model for engagement, when it's really a model for quickly polling people, most of whom can't be bothered spending the time to understand the consequences of taking various positions on an issue. Daniel Yankelovich, the father of modern polling, argues that off-the-cuff public opinion is largely junk, because slight changes in the wording of a polling question can radically change how people respond.

We believe personal pursuits are more important than social networks social, even though every scrap of social research in the last 20 years points to the fact that people are happier and healthier when they participate regularly in social networks outside of work.

We believe the good life includes abundant leisure time, spent watching TV, playing video games and poking around on the web, even though today's entertainment devices are perfectly designed to erode social networks, and keep people disconnected, out of the hair of the ruling class.

We believe privacy is more important than community, without realizing privacy and private ownership are values instilled by market economies. Why does everyone on the city block need their own lawnmower and their own 20-foot ladder? When people lead private lives, they do not share, and that's undeniably good for business. Why is the divorce rate so high? There are many reasons, but it's undeniably good for business when a couple splits up. It means selling another couch, another TV, another Internet connection, another bathtub, another car, another stove, another fridge, and another place to live.

We believe streets belong to cars, even though cars wreck the largest piece of public space in any city. Streets used to be the "living rooms of the community," places for accidental encounters, where people regularly met one another while walking around. Now that streets are jammed with cars, accidental encounters between people are exceptional rather than normal. As David Engwicht points out, in the modern age, we have to make appointments to see one another. The result is an undermining of informal networks associated with place.

We believe in looking out for Number One, but fail to realize the best way to do so is to look out for others. What sounds like a Sunday school lesson turns out to be grounded in solid research. People who are the happiest are people who help others, who go on to help still further others, according to the research of UBC's John Helliwell and Elizabeth Dunn.

We believe professionals should be paid to address people problems, even though professionalization undermines the benefits of helping others, and pushes us further away from community, toward greater privacy and greater isolation.

We believe the best way to launch a grassroots campaign is to create a standalone group that refuses to co-operate with anyone, even though it means certain failure. A recent textbook on urban sociology in Canada writes off hundreds of thousands of all-volunteer groups in one paragraph, saying this volunteer/nonprofit sector is hopelessly fragmented, and utterly ineffective because it is incapable of marshalling resources of any kind.

There are many threads to the weave of assumptions that make up the walls of the rubber room. We could go on. But what's the use, you might ask, of focusing on all of these assumptions? What's the use of waking up if all you see is how you are beaten down?

According to sociologist Gabriel Almond, it does make a difference if you can challenge the assumptions of the 10 per cent of the population who comprise the "attentive public." This group is better educated and follows politics and public affairs, as opposed to the "general public" who don't care about much beyond their immediate concerns. If those who make up the attentive public realize they have been conned by a system set up for stability at the expense of individual and societal well-being, we have a chance of making some big changes. If they believe it is time to reform North American society, they have the capacity, according to Almond, to engage the remaining 90 per cent of the general public,

So how do we begin?

It's helpful to think of the present state of the grassroots as resembling the spattered blobs of molten metal lying on the ground. You will remember the scene from the first Terminator movie. A gun blast reduces the Terminator to thousands of benign metal blobs, which are incapable of coherent action. Then the blobs start moving together, until they finally coalesce into a machine that can do just about anything.

The grassroots is very much like the blobs of metal. It has great potential for good (and evil) but it can't do much because it is hopelessly fragmented. So what would bring grassroots blobs together? A crisis? Yes, but how do we increase citizen engagement without an obvious crisis? I won't be the pot that calls the kettle black. Stand by for part two.

Charles Dobson is the author of The Troublemaker's Teaparty, A Manual for Effective Citizen Action.

To link other stories from Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons: A progressive dialogue on the future of Canada -- please click here.

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