One of my favourite bloggers, David Eaves, has recently published a two–part series addressing a question raised by the Australian Government’s Web 2.0 Taskforce:
“…imagine for a moment it was your job to create the guidelines that will help public servants engage online. Although you have the examples from other organisations, you are given the rare luxury to start with a blank sheet of paper (at least for this exercise). What would you write? What issues would you include? Where would you start? Who would you talk to?”
This question made me think about many of the issues facing Albertans and the challenges facing our provincial government in engaging and interacting with citizens. The Government of Alberta holds frequent traditional style consultations on many issues, but are they generating the kind of discussions that our system of governance needs in order to create value for citizen participation? I would encourage all the readers of this blog who work in Alberta’s public service to take a look at some of the innovative ideas for citizen engagement that are being implemented in other jurisdictions. I believe that creating value in citizen participation is key to re-engaging the millions of Albertans who have disengaged from our democratic institutions and the process governing them.
In 2007, the Government of New Zealand took an innovative step to engage citizens by creating a wiki to allow public input in the redrafting of their Police Act. More recently, the Government of New Zealand has launched a website to host government datasets. Similar decisions to open data to citizens have happened in Toronto and Vancouver. Open data was a hot topic at ChangeCamp Edmonton and Councillor Don Iveson has submitted a formal inquiry to the City Administration on the topic.
I have had conversations with many friends, family, and associates who have expressed a general feeling of disempowerment and distance from their elected officials and the decisions they make on our behalf. We elect our fellow Albertans to represent us in our democratic institutions, but as our society has changed in monumental ways, we have seen very little change in our democratic institutions.
Premier Peter Lougheed understood the need for our democratic institutions to evolve with mainstream society when in the early 1970s he created Alberta’s Hansard and allowed for the televised recording of Assembly debates. Both Hansard and Video of the Assembly are now available online, but nearly forty years later, do our provincial democratic institutions reflect the needs our society? Is it important to preserve the current form of parliamentary democracy where the Executive Branch (the Premier and Cabinet) holds sway over the Legislative Branch (the elected Assembly) or is it time to rethink how we allow ourselves to be governed? Why? Is it possible bring the backrooms of the political establishment to the living rooms of Albertans?
With the New Zealand example in mind, I wonder what the outcomes would have been had citizens been empowered to play a real role in shaping legislation like Bill 44, Bill 19, or Bill 50. How different would our province be in twenty or fifty years if regular Albertans were allowed to play a sincere role in helping shape the future of our resource royalty structure, our health care system, or how our abundance of natural resources are developed?