Recently, I have become aware of several actions that our Canadian government is planning to take1 or has already taken that have made me uncomfortable. My experience is as if I have suddenly been transported to another country, one that does not have the values that Canada has.
Currently, the way things seem to work is that it is up to us to speak up if we DON'T want something. Our government representatives take action on any number of fronts, and we are expected to let them know if we don't support it. This model doesn’t work well, for a number of reasons.
- We have to know about it in order to speak up about it. If it’s discussed only in private, we can’t know about it. If it is discussed openly, the majority of Canadians are dependent on the traditional media’s interpretation of the initiative. The media reports on what they see as important, and from their own particular point of view. This leaves a lot up to someone else.
- Even if we know about it, we might not know what it means to us. Most of the time, I need someone with expertise in that area to explain it to me in words I can understand. Ideally, it would be my government representative who would explain to me the implications of actions being considered by government.
- Knowing about it seems to come at the last minute, just before something is about to be voted on by government representatives. This does not foster an ideal climate for collaboration or respectful communication.
- My expertise in customer service means I know that almost none of us complain. The percentage of people who will actually complain to a business when there is a service failure is somewhere in the range of 3%. Compound that statistic with being Canadian and being known as 'nice', and the inclination of citizens to speak up and say they don't want something is next to none. That doesn't mean we actually want it. It means we are naturally wired to not speak up. Why then are public input models often designed around the concept that something is going to be put in place unless we speak up against it?
- The very nature of ‘speak up if you don’t want something’ creates an adversarial environment. It also seems as if you have to be nasty, to use dramatic, sometimes inflammatory language, to be listened to. This tends to perpetuate the belief that those who speak up are the fringe element. I want to see citizens and government representatives engage in discussions in a cooperative, collaborative, respectful fashion.
What, fundamentally, is the point of a public input process? In large part, it is about making sure that government representatives are getting it right. That citizens are in support of what is to be done, and that representatives are acting truly on their behalf. Ideally it involves asking citizens what they want. It isn't about checking a box to say it was done.
There is another critical piece that is missed if public input is not done well. It is about leveraging the intelligence of citizens. For example, I am not an expert on privacy or civil liberties. I am an expert on a set of other things. Our governments need to be able to access and use the intelligence and expertise of Canadians as we move into our future. The public input model is a critical access point to our collective intelligence.
Perhaps I notice the contrast more as I watch the B.C. government, and my local governments, make shifts toward greater openness and transparency. They get it, and they are headed in the right direction. I want our Canadian government to understand the time is now and begin to make the shift as well. There is nothing to be lost, and everything to be gained.