Responding to Demands for Greater Participatory Democracy

The Pandemic not only halted regular municipal business in its tracks, it has in many cases changed the role that citizens wish to play (or are demanding to play) in their local democratic systems. Simply put, calls for greater participatory democracy are prevalent, as citizens want to be more directly involved in decision-making. How can municipalities prepare for these calls for greater participatory democracy?

For some citizens, electing their municipal Council and expecting their political representatives to accurately identify a problem (and not a symptom), and to arrive at the best solution every time (and quickly) is not realistic or arguably even attainable. In short, many citizens believe they can help by being more directly involved in decision-making, especially if they have lived experience or have subject matter expertise to lend to their municipal Councils.

Demands for more participatory democracy have been especially evident in dealing with complex matters like homelessness, addictions, mental illness, poverty, and law enforcement. Diversity, equity and inclusion have become a regular part of these discussions as well, and anti-racism strategies are now being developed and implemented.

As we move forward in 2021, what would a municipal readiness checklist to support greater participatory democracy look like? I offer the following ten-point checklist as a starting point: 

  1. Political and Administrative Openness to embracing greater citizen participation. In order to contemplate shifts like greater participatory democracy, elected officials and staff must be open to such changes. It is a matter of “head and heart” buy-in. A commitment to greater participatory democracy cannot be contrived, and if it is, it will become evident to the participants quickly, and will undermine even the best intentions. Attitude is everything.
  2. A Strong Municipal Communication Network. It is essential that municipalities not only communicate in all of the media formats, but that a level of trust and understanding exists through high-quality content. The quality of municipal messaging to citizens must be direct, easy to understand, authentic, and offer two-way exchange. The Pandemic has shown us all that citizens will forgive mistakes, but not efforts to “smooth over” bad news or to knowingly omit key facts.
  3. Consensus on municipal and community strategic thinking, visioning, and other forms of planning. Municipal Councils and their citizens need to be well aligned when it comes to local priorities and associated public investment. Things like strategic plans, capital budgets, and grants to groups which support public interests need to be well-conceived and broadly supported. If necessary, these tools should be revisited and revised. However, it is critical that a community not feel it is trying to move in all directions at the same time. The prospects for success will dwindle.
  4. Situational appropriateness. It may not always be necessary to re-engineer municipal business practices. More specifically, not all matters may require greater participatory democracy. Municipal Councils remain entrusted to do a great deal of business on a daily basis, and more straight-forward matters can be well governed and managed through more traditional business processes. These traditional practices typically include the opportunity for public input.
  5. Role clarity. Even if a municipal Council decides to engage in greater participatory democracy, there are legal roles that need to be respected. For example, if there are new budget demands for a change in business practices, municipal Councils remain in charge of approving those budgets. The scope of municipal Council roles is well enunciated in Provincial legislation, like Ontario’s Municipal Act.
  6. Openness to hard conversations and change. Participatory democracy often involves difficult conversations, where listening and acknowledging the views of other people are critical first steps. It is easy to move into defensive positions or attitudes. Municipal staff must be fully aware of their roles, namely to advise and administer on their Council’s behalf. Only Council sets the policies that protect (and can enhance) the public interest.
  7. Openness to working more in community locations other than in municipal offices. Many citizens see “City Hall” as an unfamiliar and potentially intimidating place. Accordingly, participatory democracy may be more effective when practiced in places like food banks, farmers markets, homeless shelters, non-profit meeting rooms, or parks. Municipal staff and where appropriate, participating Councillors should be comfortable with working in less traditional locations throughout the community.
  8. Resources and tools to bring structure and process to successful participatory democracy. There are two key aspects to this point. The first is the need to have trained professionals to lead participatory democracy exercises, and who are not biased or are perceived to be biased. The second key aspect is to have a tool that can be used to bring efficient process structure to such an exercise. Many municipalities have used Human Centred Design (HCD) as that tool. The professional team at Overlap Associates has acted as the lead for many municipalities, and HCD has consistently been the tool of choice by those municipalities.
  9. Objectivity. Both leading and engaging in participatory democracy initiatives requires an authentic commitment to objectivity, as well as openness to hard conversations, described in point 6 above. Objectivity also has both real and perceived dimensions. Municipal staff in particular must ensure that they are not biased or are perceived to be biased toward solutions they authored that are currently in place, even if they ultimately end up being supported as the best solution. “Blocking through bias” must be avoided.
  10. When in doubt, test it out! Participatory democracy, when implemented using Human Centred Design, can arrive at solutions that are radically different from current practices. This is not to say that the “new solution” is guaranteed to succeed. In some cases, it may be prudent for municipalities to “road test” the proposed solution through a smaller scale pilot initiative, or for a fixed period of time. Even of the new solution proves not to be as effective as expected, everyone involved will see the collective transparency of their efforts, and in many cases, will remain loyal to finding better-suited solutions to the problem at hand.

With 444 municipalities in Ontario and over 3500 municipalities across Canada, local circumstances stand to be highly variable. However, I do hope that this list gets you started or helps to confirm the direction that you are already moving toward.

As municipalities, you are charged with providing many essential services. Being nimble and responsive to calls for greater participatory democracy is best implemented using a thoughtful and structured approach, like Human Centred Design. This is a type of public sector leadership that citizens are seeking more and more.

The ideas presented in this blog recognize that increasing participatory democracy must be implemented in environments that are supportive of and open to change. Additionally, not all municipal issues of the day necessarily require broader participatory approaches.

Municipal offerings of greater participatory democracy can vary widely, and may depend on such aspects as the complexity of an issue, shared local priorities and community interest.

Human Centred Design (HCD) offers an engagement strategy that can directly support  greater participatory democracy. The application of HCD is typically dedicated to addressing complex issues, like homelessness and mental illness, but can be applied more broadly.

Rob Horne and his Municipal Innovation Group at Overlap continue to support municipalities in a wide range of capacities. Their support includes programs to train municipal staff in leading Human Centred Design workshops.

Overlap Associates remains available to discuss your interest in creating opportunities for more participatory democracy, or for other projects on your priority list. Please reach out to me or to one of my colleagues any time!

Rob Horne, Senior Advisor
Rob is a seasoned municipal administrator and in 2020, he spent time canvassing both practicing and retired municipal administrators to talk about the impact of the Pandemic on communities. His blogs capture a wide array of thoughtful insights from many of these people, and include reflections about how municipal business could be done differently and better.