Insights from Michael Bloomfield, Founder and Executive Director of the Harmony Foundation http://www.harmonyfdn.ca/
What is the role of government?
We tend to think of government as the ultimate civil authority, prescribing rules and regulations that everyone must follow. In fact, government should serve society. However, in Canada today we see a tendency for government and its institutions to become increasingly self-serving. Our elected representatives seem to have forgotten from where they derive their power and that their primary responsibilities are to the people, not to their party, or special interests who fund their campaigns and careers. They were meant to exercise power for the greater good and to provide opportunity and protection for all citizens, not for personal gain for themselves or their cronies.
The question is: What are we going to do about it? We can shout to the TV from our couches that elected officials are a bunch of crooks. We can neglect to vote and do little or nothing else to exercise our democratic rights and responsibilities. Or, if we care about maintaining our democracy, we must participate in it. Unless we contribute to its upkeep and maintenance we put it and our freedoms at risk.
In today’s representative democracy, it is imperative that we ensure public participation in decision making processes, or the democracy may wither and die. I have come to believe that at the heart of sustainable community development is a personal commitment every person must make to live within the limits of the environment that surrounds him or her, and to recognize and take responsibility for the ways our lifestyle choices affect others and the planet. If this commitment is made, our daily practices begin to reflect this, and day-to-day decisions increasingly will result in sustainable outcomes.
There are numerous benefits of public participation. Economically, citizen participation is estimated in value at between 8 and 14 percent of GDP in countries that have been studied. Also, were it not for public participation, many services would not be offered, or they would be far more costly to the community. Socially, public participation yields considerable benefits. Each citizen exercises his or her choice to participate. This alone produces a positive benefit because, as citizens, we have the need to have the information and skills to make good choices. Further, by participating, citizens contribute to the greater good of the community in ways that are both enjoyable and personally fulfilling. Another benefit of public participation is that citizens have a chance to learn and grow, to achieve something and be recognized for their good work and to work together to build a sense of community based on mutual respect. As citizens work together to make decisions or complete a project, a community naturally becomes a more harmonious place to live.
The vicious cycle
This kind of individual commitment cannot happen en masse, of course, unless leaders engage citizens in dialogue-based policy and decision-making. The discrepancy between official commitment to public participation and leaders’ actual fear of it creates a vicious cycle. While scared politicians become increasingly detached from the society they are supposed to serve, the public becomes increasingly alienated from politics and democracy. We see the evidence of this in low voter turnouts at every single Canadian election or referendum. What we are experiencing more generally is an apathetic, apolitical attitude among Canadians. The attitude is not surprising: when our leaders are neither accessible nor accountable, what is the point in trying to reach them? When public participation is reduced to “tokenism,” why should we care? While our leaders may have lead us down in their pursuit of power and wealth, we have also let ourselves down when we gave up trying to engage our leaders in conversation or protest their bad decision making and incapability to take actions needed to make the world a better, safer and more prosperous place for everybody.
Realizing the benefits of public participation in community decision-making does not happen overnight. Successful leaders are those who realize that sustainable community development is a long-term commitment. It depends not only on their leadership, but the active support of local residents. We need fresh new ideas and innovative leadership to help transform urban growth into a positive movement toward long-term prosperity, social justice, and ecological stability.
Recommended further readings and links
Arnstein, Sherry R. (1969): A Ladder of Citizen Participation. In JAIP 35(4):216-224.