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Democracy in a time of Social Distancing

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eDemocracy Webinar Series - Social

Webinar Summary

1:42 - Introduction by host Andrea Reimer to the context of the discussion of democracy during social distancing.

4:03 - Peter MacLeod introduces himself as founder of Mass LBP, discusses his work in deliberative democracy and the need for a plurality of online and off-line tactics. 

  • “I don't accept that everything pre-COVID was archaic, and everything about the way we do democracy needs to be overhauled. But I do think often we need to ensure that whatever innovations we're bringing forward are really informed by some solid first principles.”

7:29 - Ginger Gosnell Myers  introduces herself as an Indigenous Fellow at the Centre for Dialogue working on decolonizing practices for city building, and her concerns around what’s to come in the next 12 to 18 months for democratic institutions. 

  • “I'm really interested in ensuring that we capture value changes, because I think we have an opportunity to use [those] value changes to reflect what we want to see our democratic institutions look like and the types of practices that need to come from that”. 

10:14 - Lyndsay Poaps introduces herself as a former Executive Director of Leadnow, and her experience working with municipalities and doing online engagement. Discusses the coming together of municipalities and digital engagement; the digital divide; and data and Internet as essential services.  

  • “If you asked me what I was thinking three weeks ago, I thought that they were two different worlds: that municipal engagement was [one world], and then there was this whole other world that existed around digital engagement, often led by the non-profit community. And I find myself today in a place where these two things are coming together in a way for the first time, and I frankly have been waiting for that time for a long time.” 

13:26 - John Richardson introduces himself as the CEO and founder of Ethelo. He thinks we will see a rapid acceleration of online engagement tools to fill the void left by social distancing, and discusses how and what values should be integrated. 

  • “In general we trust our elected officials and experts to make decisions in the short term for our best interests. But there are also some very big decisions that are getting made right now around...enormous spending packages, or rent subsidies, EI, business transformation. And we're left without tools that we traditionally had for giving feedback, like assemblies, town halls, meetings, focus groups…[but] there's an ecosystem of online engagement tools like Ethelo that are available to help. I think we're going to see a rapid acceleration of development in that space.” 

16:28  - Andrea does a homelands acknowledgement, and asks a question to panelists: How do we do all this online, especially considering things like data storage laws and equity and inclusion? And is deliberative democracy and true listening possible online? 

19:34 - Peter discusses the barrier of building relationships and a basis of trust to bringing things online; says we must define what we mean by democracy; notes that the use today of technologies being used for social mobilization and “care-mongering”.

  • “What do we mean by democracy? Are we trying to replicate traditional consultation processes? Are we trying to replicate legislative processes? Do we mean something about cultivating social capital and the coordination of people so that they can create public value?”

23:20  - Lyndsay recommends that before jumping into online tools, go back to principles of what you’re trying to do and how you’re trying to engage people; remember that just because we have digital tools, doesn’t mean the processes will be faster.

  • “Even though we have digital tools, it doesn't mean things are going to be faster. I think we need to decouple those ideas. Just because we can all get on a call doesn't mean that these processes, whether they're deliberative, whether it's a survey, whether it's a presentation from someone from council are going to speed everything up.” 

26:48  - John discusses security and location of data requirements; why using a range of technologies and combinations of offline and online methods are important for inclusivity; the importance of maintaining social cohesion and creating buy-in for the decisions that are about to unfold. 

31:30 - Ginger discusses the problems that First Nations communities have with broadband issues; their unequal access to far-away decision makers; The opportunities of social media platforms like Facebook as a platform for dialogue. 

  • "You know, in my community, we've had a heck of a time gaining access to our elected officials…[and] what I see right now in relation to COVID19 is that a lot of concerns, questions, ideas are already coming forward [on social media]. And I don't see a huge uptake from our elected officials to be able to respond to that. So I think we need to get used to engaging online because it's the simplest form of hearing from community members that don't traditionally feel that they have access to decision makers."

34:35 - Peter discusses how more needs to be done in use of technology, citizen deliberation, and different practices for community building; issues of representation in democratic exercises and cultivation of empathy for others in decision making. 

  • “Ultimately, I think that the practice of democracy is really about both cultivating empathy for the needs of strangers, and the exercise of power. And the only way in which I've seen that we can really cultivate that empathy is when we have to put ourselves in other people's shoes when we don't only speak for our interests when we don't only vote, what's best for ourselves...And that's an element that I think is often overlooked in some of the work happening online.” 

39:10 - Lyndsay discusses Internet, data, and phone access as something that should be essential services; the issues with accessibility and the digital divide in Canada; using common social media platforms to mitigate this while being wary of ownership; the importance of a strong advocacy push from those in power. 

  • “I think that we're at a tipping point here where we're actually realizing that internet and data, a strong phone connection, are essential services. And I think that we need to look at it and regulate it in the way that you would regulate hydro….I think then we need to think creatively about how we're going to target the communities that we know are being left outside of this and what that might look like. We find a lot of people who've been asked to work from home, assuming that they have a strong internet connection to be able to do that."

43:45 - Andrea asks a question for Ginger: Is it even relevant to be talking about anything non-COVID related with the public right now? And when does that period end? How do you see this playing out?

44:17 - Ginger recommends refraining from attempting to consult and engage with First Nations who are dealing with their COVID response; focus on providing urgent material resources instead. 

  • "I think we need to understand that First Nations time is a finite resource. And that in light of the drastic inequalities in regards to health care, and community infrastructure, they are working really hard to ensure that they have beds for people and access to food and medicine...if the infection reaches their communities. I think this is a time for organizations and governments looking to engage with First Nations communities to ask themselves, are they really doing all that they can to ensure that indigenous communities can safely ride out COVID?"

47:05  - John moves into a discussion of different types of technologies to fulfill different needs and different phases of engagement; deliberation, dialogue, decision making, ideation, etcetera. 

48:10 - Andrea's question for Peter: "Can you give us an example of where an online engagement felt as good as an off-line engagement?"

48:38 - Peter gives an example of Canadian civic response to the Syrian refugee crisis using basic online tools; giving credit to the public’s ability to engage substantively and meaningfully in challenges; asks, does government make space for that? 

49:55 - Lyndsay recommends that groups first learn about how these technologies work and how they can be deployed, and ask what you are trying to achieve before tackling the issue of how to make them safe and secure. 

  • “I think you really need to spend some time thinking through what it is that you're trying to achieve and then really learning these tools, and then really understanding how you can make them safe and secure. People are really focused on safety and health and protecting themselves right now, we're putting pens down on some of these projects. It's a perfect time to start learning about them in a deep way, because I don't think you'll ever not need it.”

52:03 - Andrea's question for Ginger: the reality is, only so many people have the time, the money, the confidence and all the other resources they need to show up for a public hearing, so can you speak a bit to what you see in non indigenous communities?

52:42 - Ginger discusses how traditionally excluded groups are already creating their own digital communities with a voice.

  • “How can we get in touch with that? How can we legitimize what's already taking place and not ignore it because perhaps it's not perfect, or perhaps it's outside of what we would normally like to do?”

54:02 - Andrea invites last takeaways and thoughts. 

54:25 - Peter: “The force of technology, and the force of human and social development, at least within this country, is something that needs to be stitched together so that we don't inadvertently wind up in a situation where these very powerful technologies actually become a disempowering force. And that we can continue to use all of these mechanisms and many more besides to cultivate social solidarity, a sense of personal efficacy and opportunities for agency, and recognize that in terms of the larger democratic project, we're still just barely out of the gates.”

55:45 - Ginger: “I think we're witnessing a variety of things that we were told were impossible just you know, a few weeks ago, actually happening...I think for those of us who are privileged to engage with the public, we need to take note of these shifting values and these shifting priorities. We need to honor that. And we need to find some solidarity online so that when the dust settles, and we find that we're well enough to proceed with society, that we take notes of the changes that we actually want to see...we're all connected. We're keeping track of what's happening and what's not happening. And man, I've been waiting for this change for a long time. Don't tell me it can't be done. We're going to work together in the meantime, to make sure that all Canadians understand. Yes, this is possible. We're going to unite our voice and we're going to see what comes out of this.”

57:02 - Lyndsay: “I think it'll be probably a very prolific time with the work that everyone is doing around engagement, and that is incredibly exciting. And I would just offer that a lot of small groups compared to the institutions that you all work for have been innovating on this, trying to figure out how to connect with people in marginalized ways around the world. And this is an incredible opportunity to find those communities and learn from them. And there's been incredible work in the Global South around using just phones to do engagement with people. And I think that we skipped ahead too far. And there's an opportunity to go back and learn some of the best practices and a lot of different ways.”

1:00:09 - John: “As we go forward and think about digital engagement, it's important to think about this as a relationship with compensation. You know, many First Nations have been called upon to engage and provide advice and input, but there's a cost to carrying - a cost to people that are asked to engage. Traditionally in our democracy, we haven't really acknowledged that...for a large part, you know, it’s seen as you're being permitted to get engaged, permitted to give your opinion. I would be very interested to see us move forward to start to actually put a value on what it is to participate in democratic society. As we go ahead and engage with communities and stakeholders, think about the value that you're providing to the stakeholders in return for their engagement, because I think that's a very important factor going forward.”

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