Citizenship – “Government’s Animating Body”

by Glen

Citizens are undertaking so many remarkable ventures across the country, at all different levels and with some interesting results. I learned from a friend of a terrific resource just this weekend called the Citizen’s Handbook. In laying out so many different dimensions of how people can make a difference, it might very well live up to its name. With two weeks left to go in this series, now would be the time for those who follow these posts to send in some links to projects you believe might be helpful in moving citizens in the right direction. A list of such resources will be compiled at the end of the series.

The purpose of these blog posts hasn’t been to outline such initiatives but to provide a context, a philosophical framework, for why such creative energies are necessary. Our world is changing, and with governments slowly forsaking public domains and the excesses of free enterprise placing our very financial foundations at risk, Canadians are going to have to enter the fray in innovative ways that might prove an inspiration to governments and businesses alike.

Let’s be clear. Citizen action is not a replacement for government. As Benjamin Barber forcefully put it: “Government is civil society’s common arm, just as civil society is government’s animating body.” Numerous comments to these posts have revealed the sheer angst people feel for government and politicians. Yet the belief that we can get by without it, or that we can run things better are just foolhardy. Managing a country is one of the hardest tasks to face, and when citizens themselves continue to vote for politicians and parties that continue to strip the public cupboard bare, politicians quickly run out of room for making serious strides in bringing back healthy democracy. It’s not jut the politicians that have failed; citizens at the moment seem to have little cohesive strength to band together and protect the public interest. So much seems to be about “me” and lowering my taxes. The farther we travel down that road, as Americans are experiencing at present, the public infrastructure will eventually decline to the point where it cannot be resurrected. Those who can afford services will get them; the rest of us … well, it won’t be easy.

Let’s think about what key areas we should concentrate our efforts on if we are to bring citizens into the public space. A city-sponsored democratic development group in Seattle has come up with this. Following months of interaction they concluded that the six main areas noted in the chart best represent the broader needs of their community and committees were established for each of them which included politicians, interested citizens, and researchers. It has helped to revolutionize Seattle and bridged the divide between politicians and citizens. Each has grown a healthier respect for the other as key problems are finding solutions.

There are examples like this all over Canada, in cities like Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver. I would like to concentrate on something different, however. For our communities and our country to attain the economic, social, mental and sustainable health of which they are capable, citizens must find more productive ways to engage the political order instead of always sideswiping it. People living in towns, cities and rural areas must begin to work effectively to bring their political represents to start investing in civil society. And politicians themselves must instruct the voters on the complexities of public policy and how best to work through it.

To actually make such a venture successful, there are some overriding issues that must be addressed and led by community initiatives. First is obviously the protection of our local natural resources. The problem is that rivers, drainage, the air we breathe, and the natural species that live among us, don’t just stop at a community’s city limits. Regional accommodations will be necessary and that will take work and tolerance. Second, governments must find better ways to reinforce public spaces. As government revenue continues to shrink, our parks, art, music and drama venues, band shells, lighthouses, train stations, post offices, river venues, walking paths, will as well – leaving us with fewer places to gather. Third, there must be more legislative action that supports the fostering of civic uses of the new information technologies. Why not assist in establishing a “civic Internet” that promotes electronic town hall meetings, public policy sessions, access to educational materials, and the creation of a voice for those like the financially pressed who normally remain isolated in our communities. The technology is there, but when governments continue to shut down regional libraries that offer such services, we are obviously headed in the wrong direction. Fourth, we need to talk about productive employment – seriously talk about it. We have blindly supported economies that come up with oodles of money but which seek to demand fewer jobs as a consequence. It’s a zero-sum game. When you have millions of citizens working full-time and part-time in the service sector for minimum wage, you’ve got a severe problem. This is why unions and the small-to-medium business sector are so important for our future. The former reminds us of why labour is vital to society; the second is a better generator of the jobs of tomorrow. Finally, we need to talk about targeted taxes and why they are so important.

Naturally there are other areas of vitality that must be considered, but these themes aren’t just motherhood issues; they are direct challenges facing our communities and our nation which aren’t being sufficiently addressed at present and which will require citizens to move engagement to the next level.