Why Shouldn’t the Public Tell Government What to Do?

Always interested in the role of government in innovation, I decided to participate in a learning opportunity this week provided via teleconferencing. Taking centre stage was Don Lenihan, Vice President of Engagement at the Public Policy Forum in Ottawa who is billed as an internationally recognized expert on public engagement, accountability, and service delivery.

Lenihan began by talking about the changes taking place in today’s world and how its growing complexity means that government can no longer do things on their own. Additionally, public expectations are higher and there are greater demands for transparency and accountability. As a result, he stated, “Public engagement needs to be a priority”.

While I personally believe we need more than “engagement”, I was generally in agreement with his comments and was thinking, “So far so good.”

He then went on to share five principles for rethinking public policy.

The first is that good policy needs to be comprehensive and more holistic in nature. For instance, issues such as wellness, community safety, or lifelong learning will require horizontal connections and working together between a number of fields or sectors. 

Secondly, Lenihan suggests real progress will require public participation.  Building a strong, healthy, and vibrant community requires an informed and engaged public who are ready, willing, and able to take on responsibility.  For this holistic policy-making he suggests there is the need to engage the public more fully in all stages of the policy process.

He also stresses that societal goals need long-term planning and will require ongoing dialogue, action, and adjustment.

Additionally, and no surprise here, he acknowledges that every community is different even if the issues at first glance appear similar. For instance, the profiles of homeless people in Winnipeg, Vancouver, and Toronto are different. As a result, policy-making must be flexible in order to accommodate the different causes and solutions.

Lastly, Lenihan points out that the public has new expectations and must have a say.

While I’m sure most would agree with his five principles, I started to get a little twitchy when he went on to say, “I’m not suggesting the public tell government what to do because the public can’t design complex systems”.

That’s when my inside voice started jumping up and down screaming, “Wanna bet, wanna bet!” 

My experience is that the public is pretty smart when it comes to knowing what’s working and what’s not working. They also know how best to address those issues while leveraging existing assets.

Additionally, when we trust the public and empower them to lead or, at the very least, co-lead and co-create with government, the resulting solutions are far more comprehensive, realistic, and innovative than anything I’ve seen any government, at any level, come up with on their own.

If we want the comprehensive community transformation that Lenihan suggests is essential for good policy, we need to transform government. That isn’t going to happen by “engaging” the public. It will only happen as the result of something he didn’t touch upon at all.  Just a little something called “power”. While some politicians and public servants already understand this, innovation demands that governments figure out how to empower the public and get over the egotistical idea that they are somehow smarter and need to retain control and power rather than giving it or sharing it with the public. 

Government at all levels also need to understand that if we want different sectors and silos to work together we have to provide resources and funding to make it a priority. That of course will also require a new and different kind of leadership that understands the need to shift from a primarily grass-tops approach to one that is far more about grassroots leadership.  Prioritizing grassroots leadership will require an investment in the community building and trusted relationships that will result in the networks and webs essential for nimble, entrepreneurial, and innovative communities that have the capacity to respond to any issues or opportunities headed their way.

I would respectfully suggest to Don Lenihan that it isn’t engagement we need but rather community empowerment that will shift control, power, influence, and responsibility away from the existing centres within government and into the hands of communities and individual citizens. That means we focus on community building strategies that will connect and reenergize communities by building on their desire to give back to their community in an effective way.  Ultimately it means we all need to work with government to foster the conditions that will convince the public that taking responsibility will be the hardest but most meaningful work we’ve ever done.

Posted on 02-26-12


Grass roots and empowerment, my two favorite words for 2012!!

•Posted by Michele Geistlinger  on  02/29/12  at  01:36 PM

Add your Comment here:






Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Submit the word you see below:

Next entry: What Makes for Stellar Staff?

Previous entry: What’s Good for a Marriage is Good for a Community…