Renewing democracy the Canadian Idol way

A new poll says Canadians think that democracy’s great but its methods are boring.

According to the poll, released in September and conducted by SES Research, the Crossing Boundaries National Council and the Public Policy Forum, 61 per cent of Canadians say they want more opportunities to influence government decisions.

But when asked whether they’ve ever participated in traditional methods of influencing policy, Canadians’ actions don’t seem to match their enthusiasm: just over half have signed a petition, about a third have attended town halls or written letters to elected representatives, and only about 20 percent of Canadians have ever joined a demonstration or a political party. Twenty-four percent of Canadians have never done any of these things.

“The fact that one out of four Canadians is fully disengaged from traditional forms of participation means that there is definitely room for new innovative ideas,” pollster Nik Nanos observed. “Democratic renewal could be a huge political opportunity for our leaders and parties.”

If this is true, it’s certainly worth considering. What kind of “innovative ideas” might politicians pick up on?

One place they might turn is technology. Communication tools like the Internet and cell phones can potentially bring a lot more people into decision making processes, or create new ways of mobilizing and organizing political action.

Undoubtedly, though, the best use of the tools isn’t happening inside governments. It’s being driven by the bane of high culture aficionados everywhere – reality TV shows and celebrity activists.

Think of the level of interest and participation in Canadian Idol, for instance. Millions watch and vote from their home or cell phone for their favorite singer based on that night’s performance.

Or think of Bob Geldof’s Live 8 efforts. Of the 2 billion people who tuned in, more watched the concerts online than they did on TV. The event put pressure on G8 leaders to act by bringing massive global attention to the issue of Third World poverty and debt.

The interesting part of these efforts has less to do with the number of people they attract than with why people participate in the first place. The lesson for organizations and governments looking for new ways to engage citizens is that you have to engage them — you must educate, entertain and, most importantly, build relationships that invite people to do something that matters to them.

Canadian Idol does this by allowing people to get to know the contestants and their abilities through the weeks that the show is on. People pick favorites, they argue about who is better, and in the end they get to cast their votes. It’s interactive, it’s social and it’s fun.

Live 8 used the existing relationships people feel with their favorite bands and celebrities to get them to come out. In addition to the bands, the Make Poverty History campaign distributed white wristbands at the concerts so people could wear a symbol of their support for Live 8’s goals. The whole thing was designed as a community experience that created connections between people that the organizers hoped would fuel action.

All of this to say that, as the SES/CBNC/PPF poll tells us, engaging citizens with consultation papers, letter writing campaigns, town halls and petitions simply won’t be enough. To successfully involve them, the main focus has to be on building relationships between citizens and their institutions in terms they understand, and on issues on which they (and the government) are prepared to act.

In the end, people want to be connected to the decisions that affect their lives and to feel that they’ve made a difference in how those decisions are made. But one of the poll’s messages is that how they connect needs to resonate with them too – or efforts to engage them probably won’t work.

Anyone have Bob Geldof’s or Ben Mulroney’s e-mail address?

John Milloy ( is MPP for Kitchener Centre and Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs in Ontario; Maryantonett Flumian ( is Deputy Minister of Service Canada. Both are members of the Crossing Boundaries National Council (