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What We Lost in the Fire, We Gain in the Flood

Wednesday, August 28, 2013
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Several observers of Canadian civil society have painted a portrait of increasing centralization of power, over at least the last half-century. And perhaps it is a failure of imagination or thoroughness on my part, but I haven't found anyone aiming to dispel that notion. I'm writing on the premise that it is true, and from the point of view of the bureaucracy, which I believe has lost influence at the national table of leaders.

The rationale for increased centralization tends to be increased efficiency. With information and decision-making power held in one place, it's easier to launch bold initiatives and move an agenda forward. Consultation and consensus is tricky and time-consuming.

Yet there are trends in decentralization. There is increasing recognition that policy expertise exists in a distributed network of networks in NGOs, think tanks, citizen groups, and individuals. This was a major theme at the 2012 IPAC conference, and you see it in open policy initiatives such as the Open Data Policy in the U.S. that anyone can edit on Github. Like, right now.

But this seems like adding insult to injury for the bureaucracy: losing voice at the top, and losing the de facto monopoly on policy advice (see: The Bazaar World of Fearless Advice 2.0). But distributed policy actually represents the best opportunity for reclaiming some of the influence lost at the national table: the key distinction is "at the national table of leaders" and "at the national table. Period." That is, though the bureaucracy will remain a small player at big tables, it'll become the core of a distributed ecosystem of influence in Canada that will only grow in importance.

This is a good thing.


What we lost in the fire, we gain in the flood

What's going to drive this? Complexity and legitimacy leading to increasing public engagement, and technology as a thread running throughout.

We live in a time when we can no longer pretend that issues aren't complex, and decisions predicated on an oversimplified world get called out. When Radio-Canada announced a name change to ICI in June, they suddenly found that they hadn't considered all of the consequences. They walked it back after listeners and journalists expressed incredibly strong feelings about the name, based on complex feelings about identity, tradition, and politics. Broad consultation is a very effective way to figure out how complex an issue really is.

Partially for this reason, and partially because it builds legitimacy for decisions when people feel included, public engagement in policymaking is gaining traction in Canada and around the world. Well, digitally-enabled engagement. Lifelong public servants and politicians that held townhalls, knocked on doors, and wrote letters would probably take issue with the idea of complete novelty, here.

And I actually think that the increased transaction speed technology affords in soliciting opinions will be partially offset by the wrenches that having more voices will throw into an issue. And the fact that some of these voices have bullhorns to turn to, if their ideas aren't respected. Regardless, policy wonks will have a well-networked civil society on their side when synthesizing and submitting policy advice.

There are both dark clouds and silver linings for public participation in democracy, but I don't think there is a countervailing force that can prevent the rise of public engagement in policymaking. As the public's uptake and demand for involvement increases, the bureaucracy will get better at including the public in the policy process, which will increase demand, and voilà: virtuous cycle.


The Ecosystem of Influence

Michael Lipsky argues that "frontline public servants, such as police officers and social workers" are policymakers, as a result of the discretion and autonomy they have in carrying our their jobs. Here's an example: when I was sixteen I got pulled over for speeding, in the gray area between the speed limit and mandatory ticketing. So the options were a warning, or a ticket.

However, the officer ran the license plate and invented a third option: he called his friend about it, instead. My dad. 

With direct interaction with the public, there's a level of influence, and accordingly responsibility, within the leeway available in achieving results. What's going to happen is that far more bureaucrats are going to find themselves in that position, as policy analysts become the face of public engagement in policymaking. Policy is increasingly going to become a frontline activity, and bureaucrats will be able to put their mark, embrace a greater responsibility, and add value. On the ground, in the weeds, with Canadians.

As I said, this is a good thing. But it won't be an easy thing.