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Accountability: getting information about public things...to the public

When it comes to democracy one term that gets floated around often is the notion of accountability. But what does accountability actually mean? What does it look like?

Further, in the context of government bodies, elected representatives, and the myriad different organizations that provide civil services in our communities, how does accountability happen? And what's required for a community institution to be able to say it is accountable?

The answer is different, for different institutions. For example, we often focus on the accountability of elected officials and government representatives. But what about Crown corporations, or state companies? In Canada, Crown corporations are publicly held entities that provide a public service, but that are not directly managed or overseen by any elected official. The first federal Crown Corporation was the Canadian National Railway, established in 1922, and there are now a diverse array of publicly owned autonomous public entities in diverse s…
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Collaborative Governance in Action

Government: one participant amongst many

In a previous post we highlighted the need to go beyond voting for robust democratic participation. But if that's the case then the question becomes - how? Where do we create places for collaboration, discussion, and dialogue surrounding key issues facing our communities?

One possibility is to set up opportunities for collaborative governance. Now remember, governance is distinct from government; governance refers to decision-making practices and structures, and alsothe broader systems in which decisions about our communities are made. A government is a specific entity endowed with decision-making authority over something.

Collaborative governance simply refers to decision-making where multiple different organizations are involved. In these forums, governments are one of the participants amongst many, as opposed to being the sole arbiter over final decisions. Decision-making takes place between both state and non-state entities, and authori…

State government: not necessary for democracy

Got your attention?

This statement may seem counter-intuitive, but it may very well be true. Democracy can mean a whole lot of things, but it does not necessarily require or imply state government. A state can be thought of as a political entity, typically with perceived sovereignty over some geographic territory, a single unified government, and a monopoly on the legal deployment of an army or other enforcement agency. If we understand democracy as structures and processes for people to make decisions about their communities, then are any of the above items necessary?

You might think the answer is yes - that at the least we need some kind of unified government. But what if we define government more holistically as systems and structures that govern some kind of organized community? Is this possible without the additional features of a state: geographic sovereignty, a single unitary government, and a monopoly on organized force?

I would suggest that yes, it might be possible. Conside…

...or is ideology here to stay? The case for a new golden rule: "shared values first"

In the last post I made the case that perhaps, if we could engage in political discourse without ideology, we might find more synergies between seemingly opposite points of view. Is it possible to break down polarized politics by removing ideology from the equation, and focusing on specific policies, localities, and data?

Political scientists such as Boris DeWiel would suggest that the answer is no; that politics is fundamentally a contest of values, and political discourse boils down to alternate conceptions of a "good" society. His book, Democracy: A History of Ideas, reminds us that our political differences are often the result of the values that are most important to us. For some: personal and individual liberty, for others: equality and fairness. These values are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and there's nothing inherently wrong with values such as these. Our difficulties begin when we prioritize a given value over another, and focus on a particular value at …

What would democracy look like without ideology?

The two men look at each other, and the conversation ends. The tension is palpable, with a haze of uncertainty hovering where there was once jubilant discourse. They had been drinking together for just over an hour, reminiscing about old times, family, and the highs and lows of parenting toddlers. Upon the realization that one of them was a conservative, and the other a liberal, a veil of awkward self-doubt had imposed itself in the midst of the intimate discussion. With their political preferences revealed, how could a conversation possibly ensue?

What is it about ideology (or political preferences, ideals, or whatever) that infuses our political discourse and severs the deeper connections we might have with one another? How does the political system in which we're situated require our preferences and ideals to be aggregated into leanings across some imagined spectrum?

What would it make possible if we practiced democracy and politics without ideology? Would this hamper or furth…

Moving beyond a tyranny of the majority

I really like the colour orange, and orange shirts. But what if a majority of the people in my life wanted to stop me from wearing orange, and decided to take a vote of those who were opposed to ever allowing me to wear orange again? What would I do!?

In the last post I made brief mention of the possibility that, under majority rules, decision-making could result in a tyranny of the majority. This can occur anytime there is a minority (which is pretty much possible all the time) who do not have the sufficient numbers to influence decisions under this approach (majority-based decision-making). In this scenario there is no incentive for the majority to take into account opposing views. Those who find themselves in the minority will have their needs and desires rejected, ignored, or worse, oppressed.

To put it bluntly - a group could decide it's not cool to wear orange anymore, and to put in place a law whereby anyone caught wearing orange would be imprisoned. All they would need to …

Why democracy doesn't mean you get your way - Part 2

If you do an online search of the word "democracy", you'll come across references to things like 'majority decision-making' or 'control by a majority'. Majority decision-making, and voting, are often assumed to be key features of a democracy.

However: neither voting, nor control by a majority, are necessary for democratic decision-making.

This may come as a shock, but there are ways for groups of people to make decisions that do not involve voting. Voting leaves very little room for nuance, for the exploration of alternatives, or for compromise between disparate perspectives.

Majority decision-making, for its part, can lead to a tyranny of the majority, the oppression of minority perspectives, the polarization of opinions, and, by definition, a portion of participants whose preferences are ignored.

So what's the alternative?

If you're part of a group that is empowered to make a decision on some issue (a board, community group, committee, etc), you…