Thursday, December 22, 2011

Participatory democracy works on many levels

A recent study indicates that the main reason for the dropping voter turnout is a feeling, from non-voters, that the political process is unresponsive and doesn’t engage them.
One of the solutions I strongly support is electoral reform to a proportional system, where all votes count, instead of creating a class of “losing” votes. But another reform, one which takes place between elections, is participatory democracy. It’s something that is already happening effectively in some cases, and should be expanded.
The example I am most familiar with is the Lake Simcoe Protection Act and Plan. Both the Act and Plan were created through a fantastic process of public consultation and feedback, one I’ve enjoyed being a part of.
In each case, only the barest outline was established before public consultations were held. Under the supervision of outside moderators, various civic organizations came together and brainstormed what the contents should be. Those ideas were then codified into a draft, which went to another series of sessions for revision before finalizing the Act or Plan.
Sometimes public consultation is really just a show, a way to pretend the public is involved while the lawmakers just do whatever they had in mind in the first place. But in this case, the regulations truly followed the public input. At the reviews of the drafts, the civil servants who had written the text heard firsthand feedback from the public, and worked with them to achieve clarity or fine-tune the wording to better suit the intent. It was really an amazing part of the experience to sit face-to-face with the person who had written the phrasing in the draft text, and have that person accept suggested revisions to incorporate into the next version.
At the end of this process, the resulting regulations became law. As a participant, I saw firsthand how the final laws reflected a consensus, where possible, or else a balance of interests. The goals of conservation and sustainable development were aligned as much as possible, and the regulatory and enforcement mechanisms were based on what the public & experts felt would be most effective.
This whole process was government at its finest. Rather than clashing ideologies coming to a head with an ultimate winner and loser, the process was open to all and everyone who took part could claim some victory.
My only complaint is that this process isn’t used for all of our legislation. Too many bills or regulations are one-sided and top-down. I look forward to a day when every major set of laws or regulations, even our annual budgets, are established through this kind of public consultation, with ideological politics left in the dark past.

Written for my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner.
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Earthsharing Canada and the Ontario School of Economic Science.

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