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Public Consultation

Colleen Hardwick at TEDxSFU: The Crisis in Public Consultation


On November 26th, 2011, PlaceSpeak CEO, Colleen Hardwick was a featured speaker at the TEDxSFU event “INSPIRED BY THE COMMUNITY”.

Created in the spirit of TED’s mission, “ideas worth spreading,” the TEDx program is designed to give communities, organizations and individuals the opportunity to stimulate dialogue through TED-like experiences at the local level. TEDx events are fully planned and coordinated independently, on a community-by-community basis. TEDxSFU is an event held in Surrey, B.C. promoting ‘ideas worth spreading.’ The event organized entirely by student volunteers at Simon Fraser University.

Colleen spoke about the existing crisis in public consultation and how PlaceSpeak is a tool designed to respond to this crisis in a constructive manner.  Colleen’s slides and a transcript of her remarks are below.

Other featured speakers included: VPD Chief Constable, Jim Chu, CEO Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games, John Furlong, and Hootsuite CEO, Ryan Holmes.


Transcript: The Crisis in Public Consultation 

There is a crisis in public consultation. Indeed, there is a crisis in democracy. It’s abundantly clear that there is a crisis of confidence in the responsiveness of government policy-makers to the citizens they represent. A core principle of democracy is the principle that the will of the people should be the legitimizing basis for governmental decisions. However, there is a widespread perception that governments do not serve the common good of the people. Rather, they serve organized special interests that have the means to exert disproportionate leverage over government decision-making.

And, the problem is getting worse. Just watch the news. In a recent poll, 8 out of 10 Americans said the Country is “pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves” which is a far cry from “for the benefit of all the people”! Other democracies reflect similar views—including our own here in Canada—with the effective demise of parliamentary democracy and the installation of court government and centralized power. In fact, power in Canada is more heavily invested in the executive than in the U.S. and Britain.

People are also frustrated with the level of partisanship in decision-making. 65% in a recent poll chose the position: “The parties fight for their narrow interests, the will of the people is ignored and the results do not serve the people”. This too has contributed to the severely low levels of confidence in governmental decision-making and public policy development. Government is one of the least trusted institutions. Elected officials are held in very low regard (as opposed to movie stars and rock stars). We used to seek the best and the brightest to lead us. Now you’re automatically suspect the minute you run for office.

This wasn’t the case when I was growing up in the late 1960s and 70s. We actually believed we could make a difference, and we did. We could fight City Hall! In those days, it was all about Power to the People, overcoming the establishment, and charting a course for civil society and a better life for future generations.  We now consider this quaint and naïve. In short, we have lost confidence.

As evidence, the decline in voting since the 1960s has been profound. Many fewer of us believe that voting actually matters. We believe that decisions are foregone conclusions and we are collectively powerless to affect any change. This is at the core of the prevailing climate of anger and disillusionment. So what do we need to do to address this crisis? Well, it appears that citizens in democracies believe that the antidote to the disproportionate influence of special interests is to give citizens a clearer voice by having policy-makers actively consult the people.

Democracy Still Matters

Democracy, whatever its flaws, is still the best form of government. People do not exist to serve the government. The government exists to serve the people! It’s easy to lose sight of this. Still, promoting active consultation, and as a corollary increased direct democracy, presents very real structural challenges to the existing representative systems of democracy. And that system is broken.

If the system of representation was working well, then elected officials would have a pretty good understanding of the attitudes of their constituents and we wouldn’t have a crisis. The reality is that they do not. Our governance system supports the status quo of incumbent politicians and entrenched bureaucrats who might well lose power through the increased scrutiny of public consultation. And this is precisely why advancing public consultation is mission critical. After all, politics—as we typically understand it—is a forum; and therefore crucially involves the persuasion of peers. It’s not about coercion of peers, or the slipping one by, peers. It’s about transparent and open government.  (And these days, open data).

If the desired outcome is increased public engagement, then government needs to make greater efforts to consult the citizenship. Lucky for us, the Internet revolution enables such democratic activity in ways not possible since Aristotle, when it was possible to manage one man, one vote, in person.

It’s not all doom and gloom. To their credit, many elected officials do spend substantial time trying to understand the views of their constituents. They read letters, attend public meetings and take a stab at social media. Given this, why do they have such a poor understanding of their constituents’ views? There are several reasons.

Sometimes elected officials view their election as an endorsement of their policy positions, which is not necessarily accurate. In most cases, voters are presented a simple choice between candidates. At best, they often vote for the “lesser of evils.” They clearly do not feel that their vote should be interpreted as obviating the need for continued dialogue. Another factor that undermines our leaders’ understanding of their constituencies is that the people they encounter are not necessarily a representative sample. Citizens who write City Hall or attend public meetings are often more ideological than average, or have specific interest in specific legislation. Furthermore, there is the fact that individuals who make campaign donations tend to gain greater access and attention, and may also have interests that are clearly not representative. And, there are the “usual suspects” that show up at every public meeting to hear themselves talk.

Why Public Consultation?

So, why is public consultation a good idea? First and foremost, it responds to peoples’ demand for greater democratic responsiveness and can help restore confidence in government; Second, public consultation can improve policymakers’ understanding of the views of their constituents. Third, public consultation is likely to be a force for greater consensus. Public consultation is a way to draw on the collective intelligence and wisdom of crowds. Finally, Public consultation, by giving the public a greater voice, is likely to be a force to promote the emergence of new constructive developments.

Technology now exists to overcome some of most salient pathologies of democratic governance. The Internet provides a distinctive structure of opportunities that has the potential to reinvigorate interest in civic engagement. Ultimately, e-voting will increase participation rates in democracy and the use of online tools can extend active engagement well beyond traditional bounds of public hearings. Engaging the public in a ‘wired world’ is a bit of a moving target. This is not just because of the rapid development of new tools or “apps” for engagement.

The main challenges are understanding the complexity of how people organize themselves online. This is complicated by citizen’s evolving expectations of government in an environment of dramatically increased social media activity where the worldwide community of Facebook now exceeds the population of the United States.  In this changed environment, users are organizing themselves into networks and communities. These communities are defined by shared interests, relationships, or geography. As a result, Governments at all levels are now legislating public consultation and need accurate tools to validate their decision-making. Verifiable sources of both quantitative and qualitative data are required to inform public policy development.

Online consultation thus far has met with varying degrees of success. Although there have been plenty of opportunities for public commentary, these have been of limited value. Existing platforms have proven inadequate as to date online consultation has been anonymous and does not stand up to scrutiny.

Introducing PlaceSpeak

My solution for addressing current dysfunctional public consultation practice is called PlaceSpeak. PlaceSpeak has been designed to do something that no other online engagement platform has done— connect people to place so that they can authentically consult with decision-makers. The flip side is that public policy makers can be assured that they’re reaching the right people in the right places. This is absolutely vital. Without the ability to connect people to place, any responses are at best anecdotal and not salient. While it’s possible to obtain copious amounts of comments in discussion forums, the absence of the ability to verify the identity of the respondent  renders the data virtually useless.

First, people claim their place – typically their home address. They create their profile and then go through several steps to validate that they live is actually where they do live. The validation process includes email, home phone, cell phone, and mailer authentication. Ultimately, we’re contemplating up to 5 levels of authentication. Profile are visible only to the participants themselves. To everyone else, they merely appear as a green dot on a map.

People then connect with consultation topics. Proponents of consultations create their topic pages, map out the geographical areas they want to hear from, input information in the form of documents, links, photos, videos, discussion forums, polls and surveys, public meeting schedules and contacts. People can choose to be notified of consultations by distance and subject matter according to their settings. For example, you can choose to be notified of any new topics from 1 to 100 kilometres on transportation issues.

Only with the act of connecting with a consultation topic, do people become visible to proponents. Other than that you’re just a green dot on a map, as there are obviously concerns over privacy and security. The last thing you want is someone egging your house if you take an unpopular position. That said, once one is connected, one is counted in discussion forums, polls and surveys. Then it is possible to generate reports containing real data, spatial, quantitative as well as qualitative data, to inform decision-making.

What PlaceSpeak really represents then is a direct GIS feedback mechanism. So, instead of having someone geo-code data; that is plot people and their opinions on a map, people do it on their own on an opt-in basis. This is an important distinction because ultimately it puts the power in the hands of the people, enabling decentralized control.

Armed with the verified information of where citizens live, it’s possible for policy-makers to take public participation to a whole new level. The applications are legion. I started out looking at rezoning and development permit applications and quickly discovered that schools have catchment areas, with which they want to communicate, as do fire halls and community centres. Developing policy around transportation corridors can be informed by spatial data from home to work. Any time a proponent of a topic wants to hear from people likely to be impacted, PlaceSpeak is there to enable genuine, authenticated consultation.

The implications are enormous. If it’s possible to consult authentically, then it’s possible to vote. Online voting thus far has been wrought with fraud and manipulation, as it has relied on a single source of authentication, like a PIN code in the mail. PlaceSpeak and its multi-layered verification method provides for a confidence level never before possible online.

There is a crisis in public consultation and by utilizing the opportunities implicit in Internet technology and social media we now have the tools to respond to this crisis constructively. It all does come down to confidence in our democratic system of government.

Thank you for your time (and power to the people).


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