Collective wisdom

By Leslie Campbell, March 2012

The A-word and other tales of participatory democracy.

There’s a global movement afoot—participatory democracy—which empowers people to play a more central role in directly shaping their communities. You can see it erupting in everything from communities that engage in participatory budgeting and “conversation cafés” to the occupy movement. It generally involves large assemblies of ordinary citizens coming together to learn about and discuss issues, and eventually decide on action. 

While participatory democracy might be a bit cumbersome and slow, its benefits are numerous and deep: inclusivity and engagement, higher quality of life, greater transparency, accountability and trust.

When citizens are cut out of decision-making—or debate is short-circuited—the decisions made usually backfire in a costly way. The HST and Juan de Fuca lands sagas are great examples of how top-down decision-making can squander time, resources and trust. So is the City of Victoria’s initial decision to forego a referendum on the Johnson Street Bridge—and its recent rejection of the option citizens voted for (why bother voting?) around garbage pickup. With such potentially divisive issues as a deer cull and the $1-billion LRT proposal on the horizon at the CRD level, a more participatory approach might prove very helpful.

The government’s best role in this new paradigm is to help create structures and processes through which the ideas of citizens can be heard early on, rather than after key decisions are made, as is so often the case. Thorough discussion would be encouraged by politicians and bureaucrats, knowing that the best decisions are those arrived at slowly, almost organically, through dialogue among a broad spectrum of well-informed citizens.

Recently I witnessed a great example of bottom-up citizen engagement at “A Conversation about Amalgamation,” instigated by five local citizens (including Victoria city councillor Shellie Gudgeon) who sensed Victorians wanted to start conversing about the A-word, even if their elected representatives didn’t. The energy of the 200 people in the gym at SJ Willis was palpable. The set-up of 15 or more round tables with 8-10 people apiece, facilitated conversation. At my table, we each took up to two minutes to address such questions as “What don’t we know?” and “What can we share?” As one organizer explained, “These questions were presented in the hopes that the attendees would be able to transcend dualistic ‘pro/con’ discussions.”

My table mates, and others during the wrap-up, made many astute comments and I left the gathering feeling both more informed and less decided about amalgamation than when I went in the door. Though I can see advantages to consolidating our municipal efforts, especially on transportation and policing, we don’t know enough about (for example) the costs of amalgamation. But it was a start, and a good one, a breath of fresh air. Knowing this community can spontaneously engage without being led or paid, and tackle a complex issue like amalgamation is exciting. (See for a description of the event.)

Another event I attended in the past month (sponsored by Vancity, Transition Victoria, and Focus) showed how local citizens are ready to take action around the question: Why can’t we invest our money in local enterprises in the same manner we do RRSPs? Small farms and businesses, affordable rental housing units, and other social needs could be nurtured through such means. We already have community micro-lending, but we need more options for people to invest locally and the tax breaks to encourage them.

The economic resiliency that would flow from such a move is obvious. Over 200 people came out to learn about the possibilities. Some seemed ready to invest. Many signed up to be kept informed or get involved and it looks like at least one fund, initiated by the Community Social Planning Council, will launch about a year from now.

This event, too, proved to me that Victoria’s citizens are keen to co-create this community in a way that is sensible and sustainable, that serves us all well. 

At yet another event, I witnessed over 150 people come together to strategize how to change the way Victoria City Police engage with the street community. The Vancouver Island Public Research Group hosted it, but the citizens in attendance came up with the strategies through a half-dozen conversation circles. See Gordon O’Connor’s article in this edition for more background.

Readers will likely be able to tell me of more instances of participatory democracy at work right here in Victoria. Something I’d love to see is what’s called “participatory budgeting,” which is used in over 100 cities world-wide to choose priorities for capital expenditures in municipal budgets or other public bodies (see Toronto Community Housing has been using the process for eight years. Each year the tenants of the city’s public housing projects generate and ultimately decide on ideas for how to apportion the budget—last year it amounted to $9 million divvied up among 150 projects all dreamed up and decided upon by the tenants. As its website notes: “It’s about more than sharing power. It’s also about increasing transparency, accountability, understanding and social inclusion.” People love it.

Given the turbulence of these times, the looming infrastructure expenses and other competing needs, broadening the decision-making among more Victorians makes sense. It’s comforting to know there are tested models.

Leslie Campbell is the editor and founder of Focus. She is thankful to all those who became Supporting Subscribers last month—and for their encouraging words.