All that is left is to act. The entire citizen engagement process culminates in this one moment. All the work, the humility, the learned respect of other positions, the toil, the compromise, the eventual landing on solutions – it all comes down to two key realities: will government listen, and will citizens press onward with their resolutions despite opposition should it come from their political representatives?
In so many ways a community that starts out with many opinions ends up like an individual with a path ahead. A united resolve focuses the collective mind of the participants and leads them to a similar admission as that of Bella, in the Twilight Saga: “I’ve chosen my life – now I want to start living.” Ultimately the purpose of such efforts as ReThink London isn’t to reach joint decisions but to develop a citizenry capable of functioning at a higher level for future endeavours, now that they have cooperated together. Their joint political judgment will become more acute and the participants will prove more adept at thinking publicly as opposed to privately. In fact, their entire view of “public” is likely to have changed through the experience.
In popular democratic vernacular we are continually informed that politics and citizen engagement is about choice, but that is a misnomer. Ultimately it is about the organic growth of a community, an elevated ability to tackle even greater exploits … together. Choice can only be a by-product of such capacity. Indeed, progressive choice wouldn’t be possible without the growth – there would only remain a multitude of choices. Sadly, the reduction of democracy to a series of choices only cheapens it in the end. Choices is about who prevails; engagement is about the entire community winning. Devoid of civic growth and mutual understanding, choices can eventually lead to the wrong outcomes. We need smarter citizens and politicians, not more ideological ones. The common will and not the targets of specific interests are what separates the effective politician from the shallow one.
Citizen engagement isn’t about the lowest common denominator, or even the common choice itself. It is rather about a community’s ability to “will” its own future, to draw together the various strands of civic life in a manner than can cumulatively take on the challenges of tomorrow. Participatory democracy is about the world we want, not the one we must accept because we can’t reach agreement. Common work is a community doing together what it can’t do alone, a doing together what it has envisioned is required for the future.
The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau understood well enough that without educated and committed citizens, only a government of oligarchy can result. He put it this way:
“There can be no patriotism without liberty; no liberty without virtue; no virtue without citizens. Create citizens and you will have everything you need; without them, you will have nothing but debased slaves, from the rulers of the state downwards.”
Citizen engagement can only prove successful should both citizens and their political representatives confirm the process of engagement – the politicians by honouring the conclusions reached, and the citizens through living by such decisions. For politicians this is difficult. They would prefer to be judged by the occasional election as their mandate, even when a minority of people vote. A community doesn’t live out its life once every four years, but in every moment of the time in between. Just because one wins an election doesn’t mean they should presume they have earned the trust of the people. That comes later, and only with adroit decisions benefitting the community as a whole, not just a few special interests.
Citizens have much to learn from the process as well. Presuming that a completed engagement exercise represents the end of their efforts is a sure way to lose their impetus. They must remain vigilant, fighting for the very decisions they already attained together following hard work. Peter Drucker applied this kind of lesson to a group of CEOs: “Unless commitment is made, there are only promises and hopes; but no plans.” Engagement exercises are still fairly new to many of us, but more seasoned veterans can recount numerous occasions where they believed an agreement was reached that was eventually either ignored or reversed by the political order.
There is a lesson in this for all citizens deciding to up their game in dialogue with their political representatives. Politics is very much about “decision time.” Citizen engagement, however, concerns itself with the implementation of such decisions, even if it takes years. Whether or not we have the stamina for such a campaign will not only determine the ultimate outcome of our efforts, but of citizen engagement itself. The jury is still out as to whether democracy itself can evolve from the top-down of history to a new sharing of power epoch between citizens and their politicians that is yet waiting to take root.
It is only fitting that this final post on citizen engagement series lands on action. Given the decline of the public space in our communities we can no longer rest on our laurels or our history. As Winston Churchill put it, “It is not enough that we do our best; sometimes we must do what is required.” All of our efforts will mean nothing if we give up in the course of well-doing or if, as politicians, we fail to take heed of the new democracy being born. The future of our communities no longer sits in the hands of the elites, but in the hands of everyone.
The upcoming posts this summer will be less frequent but will share the theme of what it means to be “human.” Seen only through the lens of our own personal experience, life becomes too self-absorbed – we require a broader view. Here’s wishing all of you a restful and reflective summer.