By George Thomson and Jonathan Rose
KINGSTON - What does democratic engagement have to do with the well-being of a democratic community? A lot, it turns out.
The Vital Signs 2013 Report highlights the importance of civic engagement to the lifeblood of a community. While the research in that report speaks of the vitality of democratic engagement, we also know it from our own experience.
In 2006, we both had the privilege to help 103 remarkable citizens from around the province in an innovative experiment that told us how eager citizens are to be involved in exercises where they have real power to make recommendations and where they have the rare opportunity to discuss policy in a meaningful way. The Ontario Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform was the first body in the province to use a randomly chosen group of citizens to make a recommendation on an important policy issue. Over a period of eight months, they learned the subtleties of electoral systems around the world, they consulted fellow citizens to hear what others thought and worked hard to make a recommendation that was thoughtful and based on the principles that they valued.
We learned that citizens are interested in politics, that they learn well, and are remarkably competent in making sound policy. Many of those who were involved have continued to be active in politics on this issue or on others. Clearly for them, the citizens’ assembly was a spark to light their interest. The assembly was a reminder that a citizen who is engaged in political issues is one who has a sense that he or she can make a difference.
This year’s Vital Signs report highlights the strengths and weaknesses of our community’s democratic engagement or social capital. This is a term used to describe social cohesion, trust, reciprocity and the amount of social interaction. When citizens are engaged, they are more likely to have a stronger sense of belonging, sense of legitimacy, trust and satisfaction.
When members were selected for the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly more than a few told us that they ‘felt like they had won the lottery.’ This sentiment, it turns out, tells us much about the opportunities for engagement as well as the work we have to do to include citizens in democratic decision-making at the local level.
Over 1,500 people from the Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington area responded to a survey for the Vital Signs Report, to tell us what mattered to them in the community. While they told us about the economy, their health and living standard, they also shared with us their level of democratic engagement.
As the Vital Signs report says, “a healthy democracy requires more than participation in elections: it requires ongoing engagement both during and between elections.” We all know that voter turnout is in decline at federal and provincial elections but we should not focus our attention just on elections. Ed Broadbent has said that, “focusing on elections is a little like focusing on a dot in a pointillist painting.” There is so much more to democratic participation than voting.
Young people are often seen as non-participants because they are less likely to vote than older citizens. But in Kingston and the region our survey found that young people are more likely than others to participate in a local event to support a charity. The survey also found that those aged 25-44 participate in local events to support the community at twice the rate that those over 65 do. While acknowledging that we have a way to go in terms of making our communities places where democratic participation is the norm, it’s important to recognize the small successes and document them as benchmarks for improvement.
We need to take some comfort in these small victories, but we also have to acknowledge, for the most part, citizens are not democratically engaged at the municipal level. Turnout in the last municipal election was at an embarrassing level of 36%, which is comparable to results from across the region, and about 12% lower than the voter turnout in the last provincial election. This might be fine if we were satisfied with municipal services. But we are not. Over 50% of every age group surveyed by Vital Signs said that local government programs and services ‘made no difference’ in their lives.
These numbers are discouraging but mask the variations in our democratic engagement. Kingstonians care about our natural environment and we seem to act according to our beliefs. We know Kingston to be a beautiful place. This is obviously a reason why many of us choose to live and work here. A vast majority (around 80%) of us say that there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy nature here while the same percentage of 25-44 year olds believes that that quality of the natural environment is high. We love our surroundings but also think it’s important to take care of it. As evidence, our rate of composting is the third best in the country; our recycling and conservation strategy is in the top 5% of the province.
On some issues, like the environment, we seem to be happy to alter our individual actions for our common interest. Community, however, is not about individual actions but collective solidarity. If we understand social capital as the communal bonds that tie us together, the results are mixed. Across all age groups Kingstonians participate in voluntary organizations and groups at much lower rates than the Canadian average. That should give us reason to pause.
But all is not gloomy. We both know that, given meaningful opportunities to become engaged, citizens will act enthusiastically and altruistically. This summer, in nearby Prince Edward County, citizens responded to the call to solve an issue that has been plaguing its council for years. The Prince Edward County Citizens’ Assembly, like the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly of which we were both a part, demonstrates the remarkable ability of average citizens to collaborate and work in a consensual manner. It demonstrates the very best qualities of democratic citizenship and what can happen when we empower people with meaningful authority.
It’s clear that Kingstonians care about their community. We know that our economic future is strongly dependent on our ability to strengthen the bonds of community attachment. This is evident in American data as well. The Soul of the Community survey suggests that for many social offerings, openness to diversity and physical aesthetics are strong determinants of where people live. We need to tell our local government that we have to do better. This isn’t going to happen unless we become more engaged with our labour, our ideas and our voice. This year’s Vital Signs Report reminds us how important that is.
George Thomson is co-chair of Vital Signs 2013 and was chair of the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform.
Jonathan Rose teaches politics at Queen’s University, and was the academic director of the both the Ontario and Prince Edward County Citizens’ Assembly.
Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW) note: This year, the Kingston Vital Signs report featured results from the CIW Community Wellbeing Survey conducted earlier in 2013 in Kingston and area.