Disengage From Disengagement

August 13, 2013

The problem with democracy is elections.

Maybe I should re-phrase that.imdone

The problem with democracy is elections as markers for civic engagement. Voting every 4 years, give or take, represents the full extent of involvement in the democratic process. Politicians claim a mandate. You don’t like it? Well, vote them out next election.

Democracy becomes solely about elections not governing.

It’s easy for both sides of the equation, the electors and the elected. We voted. Our job’s done. They voted. Talk to you again in 4 years.

That’s not engagement. That’s advertising, really. Pick a product. Try it out. If you don’t like it, pick another.

That’s not participation. That’s shopping. productA consumer rather than a contributor.

I mull this over, having read through Sherry Arnstein’s 1969 tract, A Ladder of Citizen Participation. (h/t @elcostello and @HearsnMindsTO) While the language and 60s revolutionary sentiment comes across as somewhat dated, its take on civic engagement is wholly relevant. “There is a critical difference,” Arnstein wrote, “between going through the empty ritual of participation and having the real power needed to affect the outcome of the process.”

This goes beyond just voting. Here in Toronto over the course of the past three years, we have experienced a very real uptick in citizen participation. Remember that 24 hour+ public deputations at an Executive Committee meeting back in July 2011 in reaction to the proposed budget and service cuts? The first of many intense exchanges between the public and their elected representatives.

But is it anything more than ‘empty ritual’?deputations

There were certainly push backs on the 2012 budget with some $20 million restored to the budget on the council floor a few months later. Vocal citizen dissent hasn’t gone completely unheard in the halls of power but it’s been drowned out at times by the voices the mayor and his councillor-brother hear on the street and in Tim Horton’s. You could argue the administration’s been neutralized, its mandate for massive rollbacks has itself been rolled back to something of a standstill.

It would be difficult to deny, however, that the process is far from inclusive. In terms of something as important and vital as budgeting at the city level – more open and transparent than either the feds or province, mind you – citizen input is the last to be considered. The mayor and his budget chief demand on overall direction which staff, led by the city manager,deputation then shape into preliminary budget form. By that time, it is the document that has to be deviated from in terms of input by both city council and the general public.

Nothing’s set in stone but the tone is definitely established. It’s now all about asks and trade-offs instead of contributions and ideas that build the document from the ground up. The public doesn’t really participate in constructing a budget. It adds colour commentary.

Even something as open and ground floor-ish as the city’s Feeling Congested TO roll out, public consultations about transit expansion throughout the city and region, had something of a pre-packaged feel to it. Here are the choices we are giving you. What are your thoughts?

It was especially notable in the revenue tools part of the process. At the one public meeting I attended up in York this spring, an immediate question some in the crowd had for staff was about the absence of a corporate taxes box for them to check. We’d been given a whole host of revenue tools with which to generate the necessary money to build new transit but corporate taxation was off the table.pickone

Whose decision was that?

A good question that we should ask at every point of contact between the public and its elected officials. Whose decision was that? If the answer is, Yours, John Q. Public, when you voted me into office, we should start questioning just how vibrant and robust our democracy actually is.

In the comments section here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke, it isn’t unusual to get the occasional response that basically suggests that if we think we’re such smarty-pants, why don’t we run for office. (Happened just this week, in fact.) As if that’s the only avenue of participation open to anyone. You’re either on the inside or you’re on the outside, looking in with no recourse other than trying to get inside.

Councillor Doug Ford exhibited that mentality back in 2011 when he got into a virtual spat with author Margaret Atwood over proposed library cuts. “Tell her to go run in the next election and get democratically elected,” the councillor said. Until then, folks, let the politicians make all the decisions.

getinvolved

When engagement and participation end with the casting of a ballot, and only re-visited next election campaign, that’s the mere appearance of democracy. Citizen participation needs to be a full time gig. Otherwise politics simply gets left to the professionals and very few of us wind up happy with that state of affairs. That current state of affairs.

exhortingly submitted by Cityslikr