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The Politics of Civic Engagement

by | Mar 26, 2022 | Building Community

The Politics of Civic Engagement: A Concept Pushed Too Far? Or a Critical Tool for Your Community’s Success?

Civic engagement: what is it? When asked for his secret to a successful political career as premier of Alberta, the late Ralph Klein was fond of saying, “find out which way the parade is headed and get in front of it.”

It was a political philosophy that served Klein well during his 14 years in office.

As far as Klein was concerned, civic engagement meant meeting with people face-to-face and listening to their concerns. In fact, he once ran a successful election under the slogan, “He listens, he cares.”

Interestingly, Klein said that if people thought he had listened carefully and respectfully to what they were asking of him, they often accepted his decision even if he said “no.”

Civic engagement is a crucial tool for good governance — as long as it doesn’t get in the way of good governance. That might sound like a contradiction but let me explain.

For the purposes of this article, I am defining civic engagement as the process of involving the general public in the planning and decision-making processes of council and the administration.

In situations and issues where the public needs to be involved, people should be given all the information available as part of a meaningful process of engagement.

Klein’s approach to civic engagement is one type of leadership I have seen in my own political experience. These leaders assess where people are and in which direction their sentiments are heading. They are not leading the parade as much as being the parade marshal.


Another type of leadership tends to govern by public opinion polls, also known as direct democracy. These leaders acquire a sample of public opinion and if the majority is large enough, they implement policies that support those sentiments. 

Direct democracy can be a useful tool for political change. In the United States, for example, voters in several states used referendums to decriminalize simple possession of marijuana and raise the minimum wage.

However, a jurisdiction that consults with everyone about everything, all of the time, is asking for trouble.

This type of governance will exhaust the public, lead to chronic divisions in the community, and risk leaving decisions open to whoever shouts the loudest and angriest. It is the opposite of leadership and begs the question: why bother with the costly process of electing leaders if a simple poll will be used every time a decision needs to be made?

Just look at California, a state that at times seems ungovernable due in no small part to its reliance on direct-democracy ballot initiatives.

“Though derived from a century-old idea favoured by the Populist and Progressive movements as a weapon against special-interest influence, the initiative has become a favoured tool of interest groups and millionaires with their own political and personal agendas,” said American journalist David Broder who wrote the book, Democracy Derailed, in 2001.

Troy Scenic, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, has written that direct democracy measures, “tend to create a sense of permanent revolution in California politics. No issue is settled for long; no approach to public policy is given much of a chance to predominate; and elected officials are left less, not more, accountable as their ability to control the levers of state power is substantially reduced.”

Limiting the ability of politicians to make decisions – and even overturn those decisions – might sound like a good idea when a politician makes what we think is a stupid move, but in a representative democracy we can always pass judgment on that politician in the next election.

If too many important decisions are left up to plebiscites and referendums, we risk having politicians afraid to pass laws. We’d become California but without Disneyland or the orange groves.

For the sake of simplicity, I’ll call the direct-democracy style of leadership Level 1 and Klein’s style of parade-marshal leadership Level 2.


That brings me to Level 3 leaders. They are the game changers. They often see something that others can’t. Not only do they have a vision, they have a plan to get there. They educate, inspire and motivate others.

A classic example is Winston Churchill’s leadership at the beginning of the Second World when he rejected any talk of appeasement with Nazi Germany and led his country to victory despite the odds. A more “mundane” example is the establishment of a publicly funded health care system across Canada in the 1960s despite opposition from those suspicious of “socialized medicine.”

Level 3 leaders exhibit perseverance and political courage in the face of resistance.

Too often, leaders try to be exclusively one type or another. In reality, these three levels should not be seen as three types of leaders, but rather three types of leadership. Each level has value in different circumstances. There are times when polls must be taken on an issue, when being a parade marshal is valuable, and when taking the reins to lead by example is critical. Each type of leadership will also use civic engagement in different ways, utilizing different methods and serving different purposes.

But, again, too much of a good thing is not necessarily good. Just as too many decisions left up to opinion polls can create political gridlock, too much civic engagement of any type can backfire. More civic engagement should not be an end in itself. Selective civic engagement should be  a means to an end: better governance.

A major development in the method of civic engagement, of course, is the Internet – and social media platforms. They are tools critical to capturing the attention of younger people who, although less likely to vote than older people, are more likely to express their views, or gather information, online than are their parents.

Social media, as usual, is a double edged sword. Automated programs using algorithms can be used to spark public interest or douse civic engagement. Social media can be an effective way to inform voters and encourage debate but can also degenerate into vapid and shallow arguments.

It is a powerful instrument for civic engagement if used properly.

Civic engagement at Level 1 leadership with its reliance on opinion polls comes down to a process of crowdsourced decision making. There are indeed situations where such a process of public participation can have incredible value, but not every decision is fit for crowdsourcing. Often, controversial and challenging issues are ill-suited for a simple yes-or-no referendum.

Just look at “Brexit.” The 2016 referendum on Britain leaving the European Union sparked a deeply divisive and misleading campaign that saw the “Leave” side win narrowly by a vote of 52 per cent to 48 per cent. The vote threw the country’s political landscape into chaos and Britain continues to struggle in a post-Brexit world.

The battle over Brexit also pretty much ground the business of the House of Commons to a halt.

A majority of MPs — 75 per cent — realized Brexit was a bad idea and were opposed to leaving  the EU. However, that slim 52 per cent majority threw a wrench into Britain’s democratic system and weakened the authority of Parliament.

You might think it’s a great idea to undermine the authority of politicians and make them listen to the people via referendums. In that case, why have elections?

Referendums also undermine the importance of general elections and reinforce a cynical narrative that politicians can’t be trusted with power.

They pit direct democracy against representative democracy, which defers the decision-making to elected officials. There is no room for nuance or compromise in referendums. It’s winner take all.

Level 2 engagement style, on the other hand, interacts with the public on a more intimate level to see what people are thinking. This includes a high level of information transfer and education with the public on issues. A trained eye can usually see where the momentum is headed and how a consensus is building. Level 2 leadership is about consolidating that momentum.

Level 3 leadership, though, can challenge people about the direction they are heading, open up new possibilities, or focus attention on important issues being overlooked. This type of civic engagement is the most interesting and potentially most rewarding. It involves the greatest amount of information and education, and warrants the greatest need for real civic engagement.

The public may decide such a leader is correct about an issue and will follow. Other times, they may decide the leader is wrong and refuse to join the parade. Either way, for the public to make an informed decision, the leader’s engagement needs to be sincere, meaningful, and appropriate.


No politician would dare admit to being afraid of more civic engagement but there is no doubt some unease about opening up the door to increased scrutiny and participation if that means unnecessary conflict. However, as Ralph Klein demonstrated, people are often satisfied as long as they feel their concerns are heard respectfully, regardless of the outcome.

It is time to recognize that increased civic engagement is neither good nor bad, nor is it an end unto itself. Civic engagement is a tool that must be used appropriately and meaningfully. Different leaders will choose different leadership styles at different times. Their integrity is on display when they use the appropriate civic engagement style for relevant issues and situations, not simply because they always opt for more civic engagement.

Civic engagement must operate in a manner that ensures the public benefits from both the process and the decision. It is not a tool to be used by leaders to get the answer they desire, to remove themselves from the responsibility of making a decision, or to create chaos and confusion in hopes a problem will be ignored.

Civic engagement, ultimately, is about getting strong support from an informed and educated public that is truly engaged in the process and invested in the issues put before them.