The Canadian Policy Research Network has released a new paper called “Democracy — Updating the Owner’s Manual” by Mary Pat MacKinnon, the Director of CPRN’s Public Involvement Network.

The paper provides a very useful introduction to citizen engagement, informed by CPRN’s own extensive experience in engaging over 2,000 Canadians in public dialogue. Mary Pat suggests four reasons that citizen engagement matters:

  1. To safeguard democracy
  2. To support democracy with informed, engaged citizens
  3. To improve policy outcomes
  4. To nurture democracy for future generations

And among the challenge that Mary Pat identifies for citizen engagement practitioners, she asks:

How do we scale up to institutionalize democratic participation at all levels of government, within public service and parliaments? How do we capture the full effects of public involvement – how do we improve our ability to evaluate and communicate results to the public?

This is just the challenge that online engagement is uniquely able to address. Face-to-face engagement imposes enormous informational, personal and financial demands. Would-be participants have to keep informed about a range of issues and events if they want to be ready when the consultation wagon comes through town. They have to juggle scheduling pressures, geographic barriers, and inhibitions about speaking up in a room full of strangers. And the cost of organizing a series of town hall meetings requires a significant resource commitment.

Online engagement and online support for face-to-face engagement can address some of these challenges by transcending many of the informational, personal and financial obstacles to large-scale participation. Many countries – Canada included – offer consultation portals that list current requests for input and links to relevant background information. Online discussions give people the opportunity to participate whenever and wherever is most convenient for them, and makes it easier to speak up. Most crucially, online consultations can engage a much wider range and larger number of participants than would otherwise be logistically or financially feasible.

But to realize that potential, we need to push beyond the resource-intensive focus on professionally moderated small-group discussions. That’s the model that still dominates the online consultation field, even though it imposes many of the same barriers and costs that limit face-to-face engagement. If we reduce every engagement process to 50-person moderated groups, we’re never going to break through the glass ceiling that counts 1,000 people as massive participation.

And what’s at stake is far more than numbers. If we agree with Mary Pat that “a well functioning democracy requires a well informed and engaged citizenry,” then we need to think about the tipping point at which a sprinkling of consultation participants starts to foster a broader culture of engagement and participation. Face-to-face engagement is a crucial part of developing that culture, but I suspect that only online engagement is capable of getting us to the numbers that will turn citizen participation into a pervasive, enriching and habitual part of public decision-making.