Deborah Coyne Headshot

Citizen Engagement: Power from the People

Posted: Updated:

Whether we choose to think about business, health care, education or war, all have undergone transformative change brought about by the information revolution. In fact, every area of modern life is going through this change. Every area except our formal structures of politics and government, that is.

It is not that politicians and governments are untouched by our world of instantaneous communications and so-called big data. It is just that, all too often, they do not understand the fundamental nature of the change, let alone how to respond or, most critically, how to lead it.

This revolution is altering the nature of political power and democracy itself. Control and influence is returning to the hands of the people, where it should rest, and away from established elites. And that is a good thing. But it raises the question, how do we get things done for our common good? Working with citizens to unleash this power as a force for good is both a challenge and crucial responsibility of all our national leaders.

It will not be easy. The unprecedented dispersal of information and flood of data has caused an equally unprecedented decline in traditional elite/hierarchical political power structures -- a corrosion of the moral authority and legitimacy of government, professions and public institutions. (This is a theme of Moisés Naím's timely and brilliant book, "The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn't what It Used to Be.")

The consequence is a troubling paradox: Just when we have more information and data than ever about the critical challenges we face -- financial crises, pandemics, unemployment, poverty, climate change, sustainable resource development, cyber crime, terrorism and nuclear proliferation -- we have less public confidence than ever in our politicians to provide the steady, trustworthy and visionary leadership to tackle the challenges. This means less ability to undertake much-needed long-term collective action. Instead, we are governed more and more by short-term incentives and fears.

Meanwhile, as trust in political power has declined, trust in NGOs has grown -- members of a huge array of civil society groups generally feel that their efforts have a direct impact on the activity of the group and that the leadership is accountable and transparent, in a way that no longer exists in the political sphere and political parties.

NGOs have adapted to the networked, non-hierarchical world much better than our politicians, and provide the opportunities for social engagement that citizens need in a dynamic democracy.

But no matter how successful and positive NGO activity may be, citizens need to have confidence that the national government has both legitimacy and the ability to coordinate effective responses to the challenges we face both nationally and internationally. We need to empower our leaders with the capacity to make decisions that involve action that extends over-the-horizon, from reducing climate change and developing resources sustainably to establishing the solid foundations for our social economy.

How will our leaders regain this capacity to lead with legitimacy? It is about restoring trust, which in turn depends on popular, grassroots mobilization. But popular mobilization that, unlike Occupy Wall Street or even Idle No More, is able to convert the political energy into effective political power.

This is where the choice of Justin Trudeau as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada has the potential to be a game changer. His most important contribution right now is to dispel the cynicism with politics that has led to such a debilitating degree of citizen disengagement.

If this can be achieved through resisting a response in kind to the ill-advised Conservative attack ads, through making himself as available as possible to Canadians, to simply letting Canadians see that he is a decent, caring person who has genuinely dedicated himself to public service and the national interest, he will do for the Liberal Party what neither Mr. Mulcair nor Mr. Harper can do for the NDP or the Conservative Party.

The next step will be to prepare for an election in which Mr. Trudeau and the Liberal Party request a clear mandate for action from Canadians in a way that engages citizens and shows that our particular concerns and interests, which we may have been pursuing through civil society groups, can equally be pursued through national politics.

This means obtaining a clear mandate for all those democratic reforms which Canadians call for -- electoral reforms, changes to reduce the bloated powers of the PMO, new forums that will ensure we are part of the change, a referendum on electoral reform, and Parliamentary reforms such as the encouragement of free votes.

It also means obtaining a clear mandate from Canadians to bring together the leaders of other levels of government - whether provincial, municipal or Aboriginal - to undertake wide-ranging changes in a collaborative way so that we stop the depressing cycle perfected by the current government of unilateral change in Ottawa that starts a negative cycle of counter-productive responses at other levels, or triggers expensive wasteful court challenges.

In our intensively networked 21st century world, Ottawa's role is to firmly lead change but through collaboration and engagement across a much more level playing field. Nothing is more important than government's role in bringing all the players together - businesses, industry, labour unions, the educational institutions, the front-line community and social services organizations - to redefine the role of government itself, and provide a long-term roadmap to take us forward together.

If Mr. Trudeau can engage Canadians in a continuing search for practical and effective ways of bringing about necessary change to respond to the challenges of today and anticipate those of the coming decades, the Liberal Party of Canada should be in a good position to demonstrate that politics and government can still be effective vehicle