Upgrading the democratic process

Linda Wiens
Quetico Centre

How much difference do you think there is between representative and participative democracy?
How about a world of difference!

We’ve had representative democracy for longer than all our lifetimes. It means designating or voting for someone to represent our views in government.

That also works in the institutions through which society does its work. Examples are boards and councils of all kinds, unions, and associations.

But what happens when special-interest groups abound, when people don’t trust a representative to actually carry their concerns forward, or when consensus and commitment needs to be built so people will implement decisions effectively?

Then representation is not adequate. Participation is much better.

Participative decision-making in government is slow and costly. Just think about the referenda, royal or not-so-royal commissions, public consultations and forums, and fact-finding and planning exercises of recent years. Currently “Lands for Life” comes to mind, as does the new public planning initiative for the City of Thunder Bay.

In families, it used to be that adults made the important decisions and kids lived by them until they were old enough to leave the house or know better.

Most people have experience that it is a lot harder to get quality decisions with everyone living by them when the kids participate with equal voices but divergent interests. It’s worth while when you succeed but a lot more difficult, right?

How much more so with our whole population.

We tend to place blame for the public participation projects that take forever, go off the rails, end up inconclusive, and cost millions. Instead, let’s explore how we could become more sophisticated to make them better. Here are some things we would need to do:

  • Be more demanding of, and attentive to, the public media. That’s necessary if we are to be informed, in good time, about what the issues are–and about the need and chance to participate.
  • Be clear about our personal priorities and key interests. Pursue those, and accept it when our secondary interests don’t turn out as we might like.
    • We can’t all be involved in everything. And we can’t all have our way all the time.
  • Be pro-active and active, not reactive. It’s bad for everyone when there are critical objections after the public process is over.
  • Learn more about, and become more skilled at, inter-group problem-solving and exploration. There really can be emergent solutions that are better than anyone’s single answer or a combination. But it takes the collaborative application of our best intelligences to find those.

I was asked recently to facilitate an “issue resolution meeting” that brought together dissenting parties over public resource use. It was one of those situations where, during a public process, a minority group had not been heeded to their satisfaction.

Not to blame anyone but I realized, sadly, what horrendous public cost and private agony there is when “participative democracy” doesn’t work well enough and “representative democracy” is not acceptable.

There is a lot to learn. But the potential gains are much more responsible citizens and much higher quality of governance.

Linda Wiens is an organization effectiveness advisor, editor of a regional newsletter, and vice-president of Quetico Centre.