Democracy, Public Engagement, and Civil Society

How can our democracy be healthy? How can public engagement be effective and meaningful?

The answers to these questions aren’t simple, and they may differ widely from person to person. For me, the answer to both these questions is by constantly tending to our civil society, and focusing on developing new and young leaders.

As a former community organizer, I spent my career working to enhance our civil society. By civil society I mean the range of largely voluntary organized groups and institutions that are independent of the government, and are at least to some extent self-generating and self-reliant. This, of course, includes a wide range of non-governmental organizations, but also independent media, think tanks, universities, social, health, arts, and religious groups.

The Year in Review

Over the past several months, Councillor Ben Henderson and I, in collaboration with City Administration, have been meeting with citizens and city staff to understand where our public engagement processes could be improved, and how people who wish to have a voice in city matters that affect their neighbourhoods and lives can do so productively.

Additionally, I’ve been working on a piece of public engagement that focuses on understanding and appreciating our civil society in a rapidly changing Edmonton. This is about engagement not just with government, but with each other. Our work on this aspect of the project began by collecting information about the community diaspora in Edmonton.

Last year we discovered a very cool project started by the Samara Foundation called the Everyday Political Citizen. We asked elected leaders and other local people to nominate people who they saw as making significant contributions in our city. This was the beginning of our efforts to bring the diverse people who lead Edmonton’s civil society together to build relationships amongst themselves, and hopefully to provide input to the City on its growth and direction.

A Civil Society

The examination of Edmonton’s civil society asks us to ponder the ways in which community groups organize and come together. There are opportunities for connectivity to be improved, and to develop more space for groups and individuals to play a bigger role in working with our council and our administration in co-creating our city.

As citizens and community group members, we have certain responsibilities to one another - inclusivity, openness, and honesty being among them. We also owe each other accountability. Just as government needs to be accountable and responsive to citizens, citizens must also be accountable for their words and actions. This requires us to be thoughtful and thorough about the information that we as community members disseminate, and to look at issues with an eye to the facts, as well as the benefits afforded to our neighbours, the broader community, and the city. 

To be clear, no one in government, myself included, expects everyone to be a traffic engineer or an urban planner or drainage specialist. It is also the responsibility of government, both elected officials and administration, to support education and information sharing on issues, so communities have the resources needed to come to their own conclusions. A big part of the Council Initiative on Public Engagement is about finding out how we as a City can share that important information more effectively.

Local Leadership

Another critical element of a healthy civil society is leadership. This can take many forms, from organizing social activities to representing a community’s views at City Council. Fostering leadership and welcoming new voices is vital to sustaining an engaged community, and that means bringing more young people to the table. It also means making space for groups and individuals who historically have been underrepresented at various levels of community, such as members of First Nations groups or immigrant communities.

The Council Initiative on Public Engagement will continue making strides, with a workshop this weekend to discuss strategies for improving the City’s engagement with citizens. We will also continue to work on finding ways to foster leadership and co-creation in our vibrant communities.