This story of a lucky entrepreneur who was able to fund his idea to bridge the government and civil society through participatory assemblies is certainly unique. The fact that he was able to get private funding for a grassroots project is exceptional. If only more individuals were willing to fund these kinds of initiatives, citizens would be more inclined and likely to participate. Seeing as participators currently struggle as volunteers, funding would add extra motivation but it also would pose risks to equal and fair access to participatory mechanisms. This case asks us to consider these points. -Editor
Hooked on democratic process
May 19, 2008 04:30 AM
It is not another blueprint for proportional representation. Voters made it clear last October that they weren't in the market for one of those.
It is an appetite for democracy. Ontarians – at least a lucky few – are discovering that they like having a say in how they are governed.
Peter MacLeod, a young entrepreneur who got hooked on collective decision-making during the citizens' assembly, is determined to keep the process alive. He has set up a storefront company to "reinvent public consultation."
It's called MASS LBP. "MASS" is short for mass public. "LBP" stands for led by people.
The company has six employees, all young, all highly educated and all fiercely committed to the proposition that government by the people for the people works.
Their headquarters is a former art gallery on King St. E. They renovated it with supplies from Home Depot and a lot of elbow grease.
The company has just completed its first contract, a citizens' health assembly in Kingston. Its purpose was to set priorities for the region's new health authority (officially known as the South East Local Health Integration Network).
Fifty-four volunteers took part. They came as strangers and left as friends. The vast majority – 97 per cent – found the exercise useful and enjoyable. The regional health authority ended up with a blueprint that reflected the values and wishes of the community.
MacLeod and his colleagues are in Markham this week, discussing the possibility of a citizens' health assembly for the northern section of Toronto, York region and part of Simcoe region (the Central Local Health Integration Network).
But they don't want to confine their activities to the health-care sector. They envisage holding citizens' assemblies on everything from municipal water rates to cross-border pollution.
"I think there's a demand to go beyond polling and focus groups and town hall meetings," MacLeod says. "We want our projects to be seen as the Canadian model of civic engagement."
Citizens' assemblies work best on issues that are politically radioactive, not well understood or stuck forever on a back burner, MacLeod says. "We take participants through a learning phase, a deliberation phase and a consensus phase. We see this as the way to create legitimacy for government action."
Thanks to an angel investor – George Gosbee of Calgary – MacLeod has funding to keep the company going for 18 months. He thinks that will be long enough to prove the model works and find enough clients to make it self-sustaining.
"We have to make a profit because that's the measure of our relevance."
MacLeod was thrilled but astonished when Gosbee, chairman and chief executive of Tristone Capital, agreed to bankroll his "crazy idea." He'd met Gosbee at a speaking engagement at the Alberta College of Art and Design and the two had clicked. But he never expected the investment banker to buy half his company so he could market-test his brainchild.
MacLeod won't say how much Gosbee put in – "it wasn't a princely sum" – but makes it clear he's running the company on a shoestring. He and his colleagues, all of whom have postgraduate degrees, earn $45,000 a year.
For their first few months, they worked out of the living room of MacLeod's apartment with their laptops and cellphones.
They're proud they now have an office and pleased that their Kingston forum is getting good reviews. But they dream of becoming an all-purpose bridge builder between governments and the public, winning international contracts and having their projects copied by other firms.
Participatory democracy is one of the oldest ideas in political theory, MacLeod acknowledges. But it has fallen into disuse in North America. Governments have become distant and impenetrable. Citizens are passive and self-absorbed.
What gives him faith is the answer he gets when he asks people why they don't speak up or get involved. "No one ever asked me."