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January is famously the time when we resolve to better our behavior in some way, shape, or form. However, in my observation most of our resolutions pertain to diet, exercise, and the reduced intake of various ingestibles deemed physically or morally noxious. Astonishingly, many people neglect to make resolutions specifically about public governance (forgive me if I have this wrong). Fortunately, we at the IOG are not given to negligence in this connection and accordingly I offer you the following personal and rather patronizing thoughts on how various players in the public sphere (including the public itself) might resolve to improve democratic governance in the year ahead.
1. Stand up for our democratic institutions
First off, let’s admit that 2018 was not a banner year for global democracy. Sure, Canada has fared better in this sphere than most, but we have no basis for complacency. So, let’s all of us resolve to stand up for the institutions that underpin our democracy. First among these is Parliament, and I would urge our politicians and their handlers to resolve to show a bit more respect for parliamentary processes in the year ahead. Things like showing up, answering questions properly and in a civil manner even when they’re posed by ambulance chasers, and understanding why a party leader might want to have a seat would each be a good start. Further, this being an election year, everyone should resolve to run a campaign marked by serious discussion of the issues and respect for the electorate (the same thing, really), as well as a keen commitment to the spirit of the election rules, which was occasionally absent in recent years. And while electoral reform has been put on the back burner in someone else’s kitchen, that doesn’t diminish the need to address the things that once made it an issue – like overbearing governments and members trained to think their only job is learning the day’s talking points. Individual citizens could help by honing their knowledge of how Parliament and different electoral systems actually work. I suggest starting with ranked ballots – if you understand those everything else will be a piece of cake.
Other mainstays of our democracy have been under assault in recent years – not just by American presidents but by people who ought to know better. I’m thinking about things like free speech and due process. With all due respect to, well, everyone, democracy without such accoutrements can be perilously close to mob rule. Everyone from parliamentarians to university administrators to John and Jane Protestor should resolve to distinguish between liking what someone has to say and accepting their right to say it, and between personal outrage and a system of justice.
And as for the Senate, well, that’s not actually a democratic institution is it, so I’m off the hook there.
2. Use social media in a responsible and civil way, and act nice
It’s now conventional wisdom to observe that social media, rich with potential for broadening and deepening public discourse, has actually debased it. Go figure. But gosh, when you can instantly rant to gazillions of like-minded people, in seeming anonymity, about the stupidity of people who think differently, why show restraint? Alas, however, this seems to have contributed to a Manichean polarization described by one commentator (okay, Conrad Black, mea culpa) as the near-criminalization of policy differences. So, what do we do? Let’s all resolve to force ourselves to tune in to the discourse of a perspective not our own, not merely for the purpose of trolling, but of actually trying to internalize, respectfully and in good faith, their erroneous thinking. And let’s insist on high standards from our own side, beyond recognizing the perspicacity of people who agree with us. For example, we should call out our own side for its misleading characterizations of our opponents’ views.
One of the time-tested ways to encourage civility with people is to actually break bread (by which I mostly mean drink) with them. To this end, I would encourage each of the major political parties (you know who you are) or at least their parliamentary caucuses, to host a social event (otherwise known as a party) specifically for the purpose of mingling with their electoral rivals. Ein prosit!
3. Make government more citizen centric
With this glamorous resolution I lay down the gauntlet to the people responsible for organizing Canada’s machinery of government. The organization of the executive branch of government is largely the executive’s own doing: Parliament obviously gets involved when legislation is used to create or (more rarely) wind down an organization, but the government of the day has lots of power to mix and match organizations and bureaucrats according to its requirements.
And therein lies the problem. Government organizes according to its needs; the needs of citizens, not so much. For example, the government, including Parliament, is very seized with the matter of ministerial responsibility, and rightly so. Each minister has a sphere of responsibility and (in most cases) a goodly number of keener bureaucrats to provide support. Ministers account to Parliament for the management of their spheres, including the programs and funding provided to them, and God help them if they stray beyond them, especially when it comes to spending. The problem of course is that fewer and fewer important issues fit tidily within any one silo (think climate change). What’s more, in an age when digital technology supports customized service in the private sector, citizens are increasingly wondering why opening a business or reaching retirement or having a disability requires dealing with scads of different departments that don’t seem to have been properly introduced to one another. This is an issue that governments have talked about for decades, and every once in a while have actually done something to address (think Service Canada). But be it resolved that in 2019 government will concretely advance single-window service to Canadians even if it’s a wee bit of a stretch on the issue of individual ministerial responsibility.
4. Actually encourage innovative, risk-smart leadership in the public service
Governments have been blah blah talking about innovation blah blah blah for a long time. Yet the public service remains notoriously risk averse (read blame averse) and ready to innovate as directed and according to established protocols and historical precedent. But what can be done to change the normative culture of the public service? Lots of things (more movement between the private and public sectors, for instance) but let’s focus on one: get rid of the Federal Accountability Act. Well, maybe not get rid of it, but take a hatchet to all the ways (and they are many) in which it encourages a rules-bound, compliance focused, whipped-like-a-backbencher public service. Let people really take responsibility for outcomes. No, really. And reward or discipline them accordingly, remembering that attending meetings or establishing a committee is not an outcome. Why hasn’t anyone truly hacked away at the web of rules that everyone claims to hate? Why do flight attendants still show you how to buckle seat belts? Why does your hair dryer still say “do not immerse”? Because no one wants to be the one who got rid of the rules before (inevitably) something goes wrong and it gets blamed on a lack of rules.
5. Anything else?
There are lots of other ways in which the common weal, like each of us individuals, could better itself in 2019, but I propose to stop here. (I mean heaven knows we were ill-prepared for the governance challenges of legalizing marijuana – sorry, cannabis – but why rant and rave when there’s a more immediate and wholly legal way to chill?) Whatever happens in 2019, we know there will be another first-past-the-post election and a new mandate, and with it a fresh crop of governance challenges for a new set of resolutions in 2020.
Aurele Theriault, Chair of the Board of Directors of theLearn More
With contribution from IOG Fellow Dr. Sara Filbee. This articleLearn More
With contribution from IOG Fellow Dr. Sara Filbee. We areLearn More