Top 6 ideas on renewing civic participation

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Participation Tuesday, November 12, 2013 View Count = 1723

Top 6 ideas on renewing civic participation

On Friday, October 25, Samara co-hosted with the Institute for Research on Public Policy and the Maytree Foundation a workshop on political and civic participation featuring academics, community organizations, and party activists. Short presentations followed by discussion sessions allowed participants to reflect on a variety of challenges that cause citizens to become disengaged from politics, as well as some solutions. Yes, solutions! Here are the top six takeaways:

Abandon the broken town hall system

The traditional approach taken by politicians to connect to citizens is not working. Meetings or town halls are organized to allow politicians to hear directly from constituents. Although this idea is good in theory, it rarely generates interest. Most of the time, the same people, who are involved in politics or are interested in single issues, attend and participate.

Go to where the people are

Innovators are meeting their constituents in places where they already are planning to be. This means catching citizens at malls, places of worship, community organizations, or even while on public transit! As a result, the decision makers interact and hear from a greater number of people so that the best policies and initiatives can be introduced to solve community issues.

Reform closed-shop riding associations

Local riding associations should be an important platform for constituents to get involved in politics. However, many associations act more exclusively than inclusively. They are not always clear on how to be involved, and too frequently riding executives continue to hold the same position for years without providing new members an opportunity to advance. There needs to be an open invitation to participate if we are to ensure political life continues to grow.

Forget trust and focus on belonging

One of the reasons why citizens may remain distant from political or civic participation is many do not feel they belong. This may be even more important than having trust in institutions and political leaders. Those working in politics need to make extra efforts to ensure there is a welcome mat out, that new faces feel acceptance, and that politics is a reflection of their daily lives. This is something that aforementioned riding associations could focus on doing, for instance. 

5.       Get creative with existing resources, opportunities

Government and community-based organizations that offer services to citizens can do more – particularly around voter education at election time. For example, nonpartisan
‘vote kits’ be distributed via existing government programs or services (e.g. your utility bill), rather than relying on the capacity of electoral offices that staff up temporarily at election time, as is common practice now. With translation into many languages, such kits would also be useful for any organization working in diverse neighbourhoods who may not otherwise have the resources to invest in such content. In addition, the time in-between elections shouldn’t be forgotten. Helping civil society organizations incorporate a political discussion component into pre-existing programming (e.g. English as a second language course) is an opportunity to help equip citizens with the interest and skills to engage politically.

Remember: you get what you celebrate

Do we celebrate ‘being political’? Not really, especially when considering the number of awards for volunteerism out there. The Everyday Political Citizen Project is an excellent way to recognize those who are making a difference in their communities who haven’t given up on politics. By identifying inspiring people in 308 ridings, role models for everyone emerge. These unsung democratic heroes prove that political and civic participation can be a part of our daily lives. They also display ways in which this participation can be a reflection of our values and highlight the fact that a diversity of opportunities to “get political” are out there!

Want to get started on improving public participation right now? Take 5 minutes and nominate an Everyday Political CitizenI just did!

Shifa Tauqir is an undergraduate student of the International Relations program at the University of Toronto, and is participating in a service-learning component
 at Samara this fall for her coursework.

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