Skip to main content

The Human Scale of Democracy: Trust and Responsibility

By this point you'll have noticed a common theme throughout these posts: namely that democracy is so much more than what happens at the voting booth or in representative assemblies. In today's world, deliberative, locally centred, decision-making practices are overlooked at best, and ignored or abused at worst. A narrow conception of democracy concentrates power in the hands of "experts", reduces our political complexity to the anonymous expression of our desires through voting, and segregates decisions from citizens. Isolated attempts to engage community members, such as public hearings, obviate the best parts of democracy (as outlined in this previous post).

So how do we begin building and modelling better approaches?


Trust and responsibility are two places to start. Trust is the deeper, more personal, version of accountability. Responsibility is an intended characteristic of political citizenship. The idea is that if we take responsibility for participating actively in society, we'll build trusting relationships with one another.

Consider the following two democratic exercises: a public poll requesting resident approval to increase the municipal budget to pay for more street lighting, and a nonprofit organization deciding whether or not to open a second location. In the first example, individual voters may not have any context or background regarding the request, and may not have relationships with elected officials. There will not be a great deal of trust. By participating in the poll anonymously, residents are not likely to feel much responsibility for the outcome of their collective decision. Although the decision may have some impact on them personally, the majority are unlikely to seriously consider the implications of voting one way or the other.

In the case of the nonprofit, it's likely that Board members do know members of the organization, and also clients. If it's a smaller nonprofit there are likely to be many discussions, both formal and informal, about the opportunity to open a new location. Not only that, but many of those involved in the decision will also have a responsibility to participate and support the new centre if they decide to proceed. All of the members, board directors, volunteers, and staff will be implicated in the decision itself. No one is in the position where they can say 'yes' or 'no' without feeling the impact of the consequences. The process to make a decision will feel very different to everyone involved, there will be an opportunity for innovative approaches and alternatives to be explored, and the ultimate decision could be more sustainable and effective (there's research to support this).

In fact, if the board tries to make a decision through an overtly formal or bureaucratic process, they are likely to be met with resistance and disappointment from the members and staff. Where trust, relationships, and responsibility exist, impersonal democratic mechanisms like polls feel inauthentic and out of place - for good reason.

Democracy treats each of us as equal participants in community decision-making. But good decisions come about when we feel some responsibility for the outcome, and when we have trusting relationships with each other and those making the decision. This is why centralized decision-making is not conducive to robust democratic practices, and why we need to consider making decisions at a level that makes actual real-life human relationships possible. Good democracy removes anonymity from the equation; it's why online forums and comments are a nightmare - they're completely devoid of the trust and responsibility that accompanies robust, discursive, decision-making.

So if you're involved with a group decision, spend some time building trust, and think about the different responsibilities of everyone involved. Even better, ask yourself: what do you feel responsible for in your community? What could you be responsible for, and what would that make possible?


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Who gets to decide when it comes to Community Amenity Contributions?

This week we're approaching candidates in the upcoming Vancouver municipal election to get their feedback on the city's approach to Community Amenity Contributions (CACs). The Evoke team undertook a case study and research project in this area, and believes these could be better approached. Candidate responses will be posted on this site, meanwhile, here's some background on our perspective. 
The City of Vancouver has a Community Amenity Contribution (CAC) policy, officially established in 2004 with their Financing Growth strategy, where all new development and rezoning applications contribute, financially or in-kind, to community amenities. The CACs are extracted from new development and spent upon Council approval in a number of valuable areas such as: affordable housing, child care, amenities, green spaces, community infrastructure and other public goods.
Our research focuses on a key dimension related to CACs; although they are derived from value created within a neighb…

Does an efficient public service destroy community accountability?

New Public Management is an approach to running public service organizations (government services), and civil service generally, focused on service delivery that is efficient, business-like, and that incorporates market based principles. It includes management techniques and practices drawn from the private sector, allowing public servants to contract out services through competitive contracting, and focused on the professionalized delivery of public services.

The problem is...this approach may result in a loss to democratic accountability.

In a previous post we outlined two key dimensions to accountability; 1) understanding and monitoring decisions that are made, and 2) access to trustworthy information. Public administration, and the notion of public service, was traditionally focused on accountability to constituents via centralized control, and reporting to, defined government ministries and departments. This model is far from perfect; centralized bureaucracies are problematic in …

Where do the candidates stand on CAC's?

After the release of our research paper Who's Counting the Dollars?concerning Community Amenity Contributions, we have asked candidates in this year's municipal election for their thoughts on our recommendations.
We will post responses here as they are received.

OneCity Vancouver, Christine Boyle
One of the big ideas that OneCity Vancouver is bringing to this election is our Windfall Power Land Value Capture proposal (sometimes called a land value tax, or land lift tax). You can read more about it in this Vancouver Sun Op-Ed, and more will be released with our platform soon. 

A land value capture wouldn't entirely replace the CAC system, but it would dramatically scale it back by creating a more transparent system for measuring the impact that upzoning or nearby public infrastructure investments have on land value, and then capturing a portion of that 'lift' in value to spend on community priorities (like affordable housing and more robust public transit). In addition…