Citizen engagement: Growing grass roots

The nanny state’s days are numbered. For over a century, government’s top-down approach has created a culture of control and programmed public expectations that the state is responsible for solving society’s problems, notes Don Lenihan, CEO of Ottawa-based research group Crossing Boundaries and author of a seminal book, Progressive Governance for Canadians: What You Need to Know.

There are many complex social problems today that can’t be solved by issuing edicts from office towers in Ottawa. Obesity, racism, economic sustainability: these are issues that need to be tackled communally by diverse players at all levels to change attitudes and behaviour, argues Lenihan. A core requirement is an engaged public that is part of the solution instead of the problem. “To tackle obesity, governments can build bicycle paths, but they can’t make you get on a bicycle,” says Lenihan.

Nor are the nanny’s charges pleased with the current state of affairs. Today’s public is vastly more informed and their spheres of concern are expanding, says Jill Bradford-Green, coordinator for the Office of Public Involvement at the City of Edmonton. “In my 20 years, I’ve seen the scope of their ‘vocalness’ broaden — people now look at environmental issues at national and global levels,” she says. “Years ago, people would never have thought about that.”

People want in. How can government open the door in an orderly fashion? There is a range of policy, technology and governance issues to consider to usher in a new brand of post-modern government.

Engaging policies

Lenihan looks at citizen engagement on three levels. At the lowest level, consultation to solicit the public’s views is used extensively — so much so that the public has grown cynical about what they often perceive as exercises in futility. “People say the government isn’t listening, but is just going through a process about things it’s going to do anyway,” he says. “Many feel they’ve been consulted to death, to no real constructive end.”

Meaningful engagement kicks in at higher levels of interaction. On level two, governments go beyond consultation to include the public in debate and decision-making. “This is a big step beyond consultation, and we don’t do much of that,” he says, noting that the Citizens’ Assembly of British Columbia convened in 2004 to study electoral reform was a ground-breaking initiative.

A non-partisan citizens’ group was needed to make an objective, informed decision, he says. “It turns out citizens can do this. They said to politicians, let’s have a forum to decide this issue because we don’t have the political baggage you guys do.”

At its highest level, engagement means including citizens in planning, and acting on a decision. There are many areas where government can do only part of the job and really needs citizen

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