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Location: Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The failure of citizenship

Re: The failure of government, Ottawa Citizen Friday August 1, 2008

In Friday’s Citizen, Ken Gray suggests that governments are failing in the expectations we set for them. I would agree but from the glass is half full perspective. Despite some very significant problems that governments are unable to deal with, we need to remember that Canada enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the world. Canadian governments have done much and contributed much as they are currently constructed.

On the other hand, there is evidence that Canada is beginning to fall behind when it comes to the quality of government services, the quality of public infrastructure and assets, the innovativeness of our economy and the health of our citizens and environment (see the Conference Board’s latest report on How Canada Performs). There is very clear evidence that Canadian governments do not have, nor have they had for some time, all the resources, knowledge or power to adequately address today’s most important concerns. Issues have become more complex and the capacity to deal with them more distributed. But does that mean that governments are failing?

When Ken asks whether “are we asking too much of government”, he is rightly asking about the need to reassess our relationship with government. However, I believe the question itself is the wrong one to ask for it is implies both cynicism and entitlement. It is cynical in the sense that it presumes that governments can only be as we have come to know them. Since they cannot change, it is not worthwhile to invest in making things different. The only thing to do is to lower our expectations.

The question also implies a sense of entitlement in that it absolves the author/reader/citizen of any responsibility towards the major issues of the day. It presumes none of us has any obligation towards finding or contributing to important community or societal issues and it reflects a view of government that is profoundly anti-democratic and patriarchal while compounding this with an unhealthy self-serving attitude.

A better starting point is to ask, “are we expecting too much for ourselves?” Better health care, more vibrant cities and economies, cleaner and more sustainable environments – are these things really too much to imagine? Are these aspirations for ourselves and our children too selfish? I think not and I suspect many others feel the same way.

So if we can all rightly imagine these better possibilities, then the issue is not whether governments should or should not deliver them to us but, but how do we discover what needs to change for that future possibility to become a reality and what are we going to do about it? The involvement of government is a much secondary consideration.

First to change must be our belief that we bear no responsibility for either the problem or the solution. It may seem heresy to suggest but as citizens of this democracy called Canada we are in fact its owners and shareholders -- although we certainly don’t act like it. We elect a few people to act as our collective agents and they in turn hire a lot more people to do some (although not all) of the work of managing our collective affairs. Over the years, however, this agency relationship has been turned on its head. Governments now presume mastery and citizens have adopted a role that is little more than serfdom. Beyond tithing, their ability to influence or direct government is minimal.

While this topsy-turvy relationship has often been benign in a Canadian context, the “friendly dictatorship”, as Jeffrey Simpson recently referred to it, is worrisome. Worrisome, because at a time when the biggest citizen concerns cry out for some form of grand, citizen partnership, we are instead bombarded with soothing patriarchal messages of “don’t worry”, “we’re in control”, “just trust us”.

Both politicians and public servants dogmatically assume that the state knows best and that they alone have the moral authority to determine the public interest. We acquiesce to this theft of our right of citizenship because it appears more convenient, more certain, and less risky. We don’t want to trouble ourselves. Yet as Ken and many other modern commentators have so clearly depicted -- governments are not in control. They are not ‘in charge’ as we would all like to believe. In most instances, they are but one member of a changing group of stakeholders -- each of whom is endowed with some knowledge, some power, and some resources and therefore invested with the power to say ‘no’. Even with a public mandate and the power of coercion, if the support or acquiescence of multiple parties is required then getting everyone to say ‘yes’ and sustaining their commitment becomes an almost impossible task.

To overcome the many ways to say ‘no’ we need to rebuild our sense of togetherness and our practice of community. We begin that process by reasserting who is the agent and who is the owner. We don’t need to wait for government to climb out of its chronic gridlock to tell us what to do. We just need to believe that our future is in our hands and those of our neighbours.

Every community already has within it the seeds of its own transformation. As citizens if we can collectively take ownership of current conditions, it is then possible to transform the present into a new possibility that we create for ourselves in cooperation with our neighbours. Otherwise nothing changes, as Ken described in his column. Changing leaders, changing parties, changing initiatives, it always ends up the same. We just bring the past into the future.

Transformative change only happens when we change the tenor of the conversation that empowers our assumptions and institutions. But that conversation must first begin with us. When we continue to believe that only governments are responsible, that they alone can fix things, that we can demand more of government while we contribute less (the free lunch argument), then we can expect more of the same. This leads me to conclude that when we observe this inability to solve the same old problems year after year, rather than a failure of government as Ken suggests, what we have is a failure of citizenship.

It is, however, not a total failure. There are many examples both here in Ottawa and elsewhere where citizens have found ways to work together to transform their community, examples like Pathways to Education, the Vibrant Communities initiative and Action for Neighbourhood Change. These stories need to be told for they are compelling tales of democracy in action. We can all learn from them. And while creating space for more democracy may not mean less government, it surely will mean different government. That too is an important conversation Ken’s article has begun and one which ought to be continued.