Collaborative Democracy Involves the Public

This is the original, slightly longer version of my article in today's Times Colonist Newspaper on collaborative democracy.


When Democracy Falters Who You Gonna’ Call??
Public anger and resentment is growing worldwide against the political elite.  Politicians and corporate leaders have been unable to resolve global economic crises and spreading unemployment.  Hundreds of billions in public tax dollars continue to pour into private banks and corporate bailouts.  Billions more go into questionable military adventures with only minority public support.
Many people are questioning whether democracy as-we-know-it is up to dealing with these modern day challenges.  There’s a creeping malaise in Western liberal democracies. The hyper-partisan politics of today is creating a party-focused system with politicians consistently putting the interests of their parties ahead of the interests of their constituents and the public trust.
Consider the disrepute the BC Liberals have engineered for themselves with their shady HST tactics and BC rail cover-up.   Look at the recent shenanigans by the unelected Senate as they killed Bill C-311 in a surprise vote without debate; a move that many Canadians consider an affront to democracy.
Fortunately, wiser forms of democracy are beginning to emerge, providing citizens with meaningful opportunities to participate in political decision-making.  For example, the government of Iceland has initiated a constitutional assembly that is considering suggestions put forward by 1,000 randomly chosen citizens.  The expectation is that the assembly will radically alter the current contract between citizen and state.

In Austria, the Office of Future Related Issues has introduced an innovative public participation strategy whereby councils of randomly selected citizens are being convened on a regular basis to address key issues.  In the city of Bregenz twelve citizens were randomly selected to consider a controversial development proposal.  The dynamically facilitated group achieved a breakthrough and realized that the project offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to link the city more closely with the lakefront, enhancing the city and saving the developers money.  When the citizens’ council made their presentation, everyone was surprised by the elegance of the solution. The principal investor who had been working on the project for two years said, “We had been looking at the trees and had not seen the forest.” 
Here in Victoria, a group of citizen-volunteers under the banner of Wise Democracy Victoria (WDV) have convened three councils of randomly-selected members since 2007.  In each case council members achieved a unanimous “public interest” perspective, rather than one pre-determined by government or special interests.  In 2010, WDV assisted the City of Victoria in convening two such councils to provide citizen input on revisions to the Official Community Plan. Participants indicate that their experience was transforming and energizing because they felt that their voices could actually make a difference!
Underlying each of these councils and assemblies is a fundamental premise; in our modern world of increasingly diverse interests, well-funded lobbyists, and hyper-partisan politics the best way to achieve a legitimate reading of the public interest is to involve citizens directly in meaningful way. 
We desperately need new and innovative tools and traditions to enhance and leverage our existing democratic systems and institutions. 
Fortunately, such innovations already exist. We have the skills and techniques to facilitate breakthrough conversations that go beyond traditional dialogue and deliberation.  There are two key ingredients: 1. direct involvement by a representative cross-section of the entire community, province, or nation through random selection of citizens, and 2. dynamic facilitation that empowers the group to reach a unified perspective via creative shifts and breakthroughs, rather than through the usual back and forth negotiation. 
Exercises in collaborative democracy are underway around the globe demonstrating the capacity of randomly-selected citizen councils to provide breakthrough solutions that are up to the task of addressing the difficult challenges we face.  In Vorarlberg, Austria, for example, a state-wide citizens’ council is planned for March 2011 to consider the controversial and divisive issue of migrants and their integration.   Imagine the creative possibilities and fiscal choices that may have emerged regarding Victoria’s Blue Bridge if only we had received input from a randomly selected citizens’ council early in the process.
When democracy falters who should you call??  The people, of course!

1 Response to "Collaborative Democracy Involves the Public"

  1. Tony Hendriks December 26, 2010 at 12:59 PM
    Glad to see some positive responses to this problem of what I see as bad leadership in our governments. Sometimes I despair. For example, PM Harper seems to be doing a great job of dismantling much of what was/is good about Canada. He is making us poorer...not richer.
    Anthony

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