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Democracy Between Elections, Part Two: Rob Ford's Public Consultation as a Circus

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Recently Toronto mayor and chair of the city's executive committee pulled an 'all-nighter' to hear from approximately 300 of the roughly three million people who live in Toronto. They were invited to share their views of the KPMG study that outlined the areas for possible program cuts in the City's attempt to balance the budget. The mayor had run on a campaign of 'stopping the gravy train' and said that he could balance the budget without cutting any 'essential services.'

As Councillor Joe Mihevc wisely stated during the debate, "One man's gravy is another man's essential service." It was clear that many speakers were appalled to learn that libraries, parks, subsidized child care and some aspects of policing were on the list of 'non-essential' services that could be placed on the chopping block.

The process for 'meaningful consultation' was fatally flawed. The cynicism mounted as attendees wondered out loud if this was just a futile exercise to show that 'the public had been consulted' when they believed that the mayor and his posse of councillors had already made up their minds. It cannot be said often enough -- consultation must take place in an atmosphere in which the decision makers have open minds.

Putting citizens through any exercise that is unlikely to change the outcome is a waste of time and feeds into the cancer that is the rising mistrust of governments. 'Democracy between elections' must mean that citizens have genuine opportunities to shape public policy beyond their choices at the ballot box. In 2011, elected representatives have many more options than ever before to harvest good ideas and 'take the pulse' of their citizens between elections.

I remember meeting with Janice Stein years ago, expressing my frustration that meaningful citizen engagement seemed to be stalled. She advised that we had to focus on developing the actual mechanisms that would ensure citizens could feel they had participated in a genuine process which had the possibility of affecting the decisions that were being taken. Stephen Coleman at University of Leeds points out that citizens don't want to govern, they just want to be heard. Frank Graves has said that citizens require a culture of 'assured listening' in order to be prepared to take the time to interact with elected representatives and governments.

As I said in my previous piece, when I was first elected in 1997, I could see that the job of an elected representative was very familiar. As a family doctor, I was trained to ask what's wrong and listen, and together make a plan. As an elected representative there was the additional responsibility to 'take the pulse' of the collective, to harvest good ideas that could help many, many people. I found the prospect exciting. I had the luxury of organizing town hall meetings and roundtables, calling up experts -- the possibilities of 'engagement' for a member of parliament are limitless. People take your call, and are generally more than willing to participate in something that will give them an opportunity to share their expertise and point of view for the public good.

But I was astounded that there was no 'road map' for consultation. No handbook. No 'minimum specifications' for the work of a member of parliament. Andy Scott, the MP for Fredericton was in the meantime well ahead of us all. As a sociologist, he had developed a process in which every six weeks he held a forum on a certain subject. He pre-circulated an overview prepared by the Library of Parliament. The sessions were facilitated, a report was prepared to send to the relevant minister. Often, Andy and his guest would appear on cable TV that evening to take questions from citizens from all over New Brunswick. I wondered why Andy's approach wasn't the norm.

In 1998, we invited Robert Putnam from Harvard to meet with 40 thoughtful Canadians to discuss the relationship between the elected representative and the citizen. We had the proponents of direct democracy like reform MP Ted White, Audrey O'Brien (then Deputy Clerk now Clerk of the House of Commons), Monique Begin, Charles Pascal, Bob Rae. It was exciting. Bill Young now Parliamentary Librarian wrote an excellent backgrounder -- The Elected Representative and the Citizen. Carol Goar wrote an impressive piece in the Toronto Star using the phrase 'democracy between elections' -- which I loved and have used ever since. We followed up the following year with a meeting devoted to the emerging e-democracy with Dr. Stephen Coleman who was then at London School of Economics and the Hansard Society. He observed that one of the cornerstones of democracy is public spaces in which to debate ideas and proposed that the internet was a new 'public space' and that we as elected representatives and governments had to get with it!

Professor Coleman and Richard Allen, the brilliant MP and IT guru from Sheffield, England, organized E-Democracy conferences at Wilton Park. In 2001, the OECD presented its report on The Citizen as Partner. The document presented three levels of engagement.

Information: transparency, access to documents -- what we now call open government
Consultation: asking for advice and transparency in how it is used in decision making -- like Paul Martin's prebudget consultations: "We heard x, y and z. We decided that x was too expensive, y would be unfair to smaller provinces or to Quebec or to Alberta. Therefore we decided to do z."
Participation: a more deliberative process in which the citizens participating actually decide. Carolyn Lukensmeyer of America Speaks pioneered this approach in the process to choose the design to replace the twin towers after 9-11. The people assembled at the Jacob Javits Centre rejected all three of the proposed designs. They were prepared to return to look at two new ones and chose the Libeskind design.

We were on our way. Communication consultant, Michel Amar developed an innovative multi-tool engagement approach for the Romanow Commission on our health care system. I chaired the sub-committee on Persons with Disabilities where Library of Parliament researcher Bill Young and IT consultant Joe Peters designed and executed a process for our study on the future of CPP Disability that was viewed as a best practice. The Canadian Parliament was on its way to democracy 2.0. As we set up the Public Health Agency of Canada, and the Health Goals for Canada, we consulted, listened and I believe that we were walking the talk of 'putting the public back into public health.'

These initiatives were a great start, but we've stalled. The situation is worse than anyone could have imagined. Parliamentary committees aren't given the budgets to travel or develop the capacity for e-consultation. This year, the Parliamentary committee study on -- wait for it -- open government was denied a budget for a consultation with Canadians about their needs!

The same thing has happened in Toronto. When Mayor Miller was elected he invited Carolyn Lukensmeyer to help design a more deliberative approach to budget-making in Toronto. The current 'consultations' are empty gestures in comparison.

This weekend, the Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs held its annual conference. The theme was "From the Ground Up: Civic Engagement in Our Time." I am concerned that we have lost a decade. We need leaders with the open minds of Calgary Mayor Nenshi and citizens like Dave Meslin (Local Motion: The Art of Civic Engagment in Toronto) who are prepared to show us the way. As Nellie Cournoyea said in 'Speaking Together' in 1975 "Paternalism has been a total disaster." 'Father knows best' doesn't work for prime ministers, or mayors, or any elected officials. 'Bottom-up' approaches don't have be chaos. They certainly can't be one all-night circus at city hall. We need the mechanisms to do meaningful engagement. We need to fight the cynicism and make it happen.

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