The Age of Deference is Over – What Now?

On September 3, 2010, Scott H. Payne and I posted an interview expanding on an article I wrote for The Mark entitled Why We Vote Against Our Interests.  Specifically, we sought to look at the issues around a revitalised democracy in Canada.  Some weeks later Scott approached me about the idea of carrying on an extended and more sustained dialogue on the topic. The following exchange is the first offering in that proposed series and explores the issue of trust in government and its role in creating a more accountable and effective relationship between citizens and their government.

Our next exchange, which is still in the works, will focus on civic duty and our notions of citizenship. To read more from Scott, please visit his blog.

Scott Payne

Your last, excellent post talked about our growing distrust of government and how this paralyzes our ability to reform government in such a way as to fashion a positive role vis-a-vis our public lives. As your post and your citation of Aaron Wherry both note, there are good reasons for distrusting government.

Recent examples aren’t even limited to run of the mill reasons like engagement in political speak, duplicitous activity, and/or a general disregard for the will of the public. Rather, our own government has recently engaged in activity that stands to significantly compromise the capacity for good government itself with the long-form Census debacle and, further back, strayed into serious and tangible acts of substantial moral question like the obfuscation and obstructionism surrounding the Afghan detainee transfer scandal. Going back a couple of years, the Liberal Sponsorship Scandal places a palpable context around government corruption and financial mismanagement and the recent resignation of a ministerial aide over political meddling in access-to-information requests add fuel to the fire.

And none of those examples even touch on the kinds of distrust that various actions by our neighbour government to the south has generated both within and without its own borders, such as the use of force under questionable pretenses, the serious, continued, and — considered by many to be — unconstitutional infringement of civil rights, and the direct use of torture. So, I mean, when we talk about distrust n government, we’re not just talking about a general grumbling over partisan activities with which we disagree or kitchen table griping over, “those damn politicians”. There are real instances of abuse of power that has inflicted irreparable damage on innocent lives. These are, I think, issues about which we as engaged citizens need to be deeply concerned and on which we need to be active.

As a general proponent of a strong and robust role for government, the above have, I’ll admit, shaken the foundation of my trust in government’s ability to do good and not abuse its seat of power. And so recently I penned a short post, following on the story I read of George and Delores Brent, where I argued for a sort of built in distrust of government that acknowledges the inevitable failing that any institution will realize in its operations. I coined the term “progressive libertarianism” for this political approach and argued for the use of distrust in a constructive fashion that seeks to engage citizens in the actions of their government, rather than generate an increase environment of disengagement.

The crux of my argument was as follows,

By advocating the way I do for a role for government in things like health care, I recognize that in some instances I am enabling situations like the one facing the Brents to occur. I think that is an inevitability.But I also think that the good that government is able to do in those cases where it doesn’t overstep its bounds or act corruptly/incompetently ultimately outweighs not having government act at all to avoid the former.

But, to my mind, that formulations itself isn’t good enough. And so the added obligation, as someone who advocates for strong government, is to lead the charge in condemning government when it does overstep its bounds or act corruptly/incompetently so as to mitigate the effects of the situations I have enabled with my advocacy.

So what I wonder is how this suggestion squares with your own analysis about our depletion of trust in government and our need to bridge that gap. In so doing, can we also recognize that a certain constructive distrust is immanently useful in our effort to revitalize our democracy and re-engage ourselves as citizens?

Alex Himelfarb

Well, Scott, I think you have framed the dilemma well.  On the one hand, “blind trust” is neither desirable nor possible especially now that we understand the risks and the costs.  The “age of deference” is well and truly over.  But on the other hand, we are all the losers if the replacement is an “age of cynicism” which makes positive collective action impossible.  The art is to find a middle ground and this won’t be easy if, as I fear, cynicism has the upper hand.

Yes, governments too often abused the trust we bestowed on them not simply by virtue of their political spinning and pathological partisanship which have always existed and now seem to have replaced all else,  but also by too many instances where private interests trumped the public good or where majority interests trumped minority rights.  In the U.S. we have seen distrust of government grow and transform itself into an angry movement more about saying “no” than shaping a shared future.  We are seeing hints of this right here at home.  As one might expect from a Toronto elitist, I was listening to the CBC the other day to hear someone proudly exclaiming the Ottawa Tea Party.  The Toronto election seems to have elements of this kind of distrust and anger too. And frankly we ought to be concerned that the census decision not only feeds off but feeds this anger and distrust.  In any case, the times are ripe for ideologically driven libertarians who take every misstep or misdeed as proof positive that government does not and cannot work.

Any organization or, for that matter, any relationship is doomed if it is built on distrust.  We know from our experience that it is easier to break trust than to build it, and once broken we waste enormous energy on scrutinizing behaviour, looking for any signal of wrongdoing.    And those on the receiving end of distrust will often feel diminished or become paralyzed, afraid to risk error or take responsibility.  We have seen some of this in the layering of rules, controls and oversight in the public service that serves only to undermine performance, constrain creativity and innovation and stall an already slow machine.   Distrust makes cooperation impossible and it is insatiable.  And while I agree with you and Aaron Wherry that transparency is inevitable and desirable and part of the solution, there ought to be some limits here too.  Public policy and quality decisions need spaces where public officials can debate rather than posture, try out unprecedented ideas and offer frank advice.

So, is the mid-ground some way to institutionalize distrust as you suggest, build it into the system somehow?  Yes, probably.  But how we do this matters profoundly and it is not enough in itself.  The last ten or fifteen years have seen a proliferation of oversight agencies and reporting requirements culminating in the Accountability Act.  Are you more confident today?  More ready to trust?  How are we best to “incorporate distrust” without killing the organization?    First of all, let’s be realistic about our starting point.  Let’s not buy into the inflated rhetoric of the corruption and inefficiency of our current institutions.  Even in the midst of current controversies about alleged corruption, we ought to recognize, as do those outside the country, that the vast majority of Canadian officials, elected and unelected, are law-abiding and ethical.  Those who pretend that government is at worst the problem and at best irrelevant ought to take a careful look at the suffering in those countries where government is truly corrupt and incompetent.  Perhaps the most reassuring sign is that in Canada, unlike some other countries, citizens are not complacent about abuses of public trust.  We don’t just shrug them off.  Our mechanisms to uncover and address wrongdoing are pretty strong. And, of course, we get to vote – too often for that matter – without fear of violence or intimidation.

But the challenge is huge, the cynicism growing, the anger too .  Clearly much more is needed.

1. First, we have to let our institutions do their work.   The independence of the courts and a justice system free from political interference are  essential.  We are doing pretty well here and ought to be vigilant in protecting these institutions.  Strengthening Parliament’s ability to hold government to account is also key.  Here we need to make sure that we are protecting the independence of agents and officers of Parliament and bolstering their capacity to provide parliamentarians with the information they need to do their jobs.  In this respect, the Parliamentary Budget Officer has been impressive in his campaign to secure the independence and capacity of this office for his successors.  We also need to improve the precision and quality of information that parliamentarians and Canadians are provided to asses government’s performance – and that includes audit, evaluation and broad social, economic and environmental indicators.  The census decision is not an “elite issue” – it goes to the heart of our democracy and accountability.   All this to say that our justice and democratic institutions – Parliament and the Courts, but also the Auditor General, the Parliamentary Budget Office and Statistics Canada and the arms length agencies which are supposed to be free of political interference – must be protected and strengthened where necessary.

2. What will never work, however, is to treat government as a foreign thing to be watched and controlled.  Rather, what we need is to close the gap between citizens and government.  We need to open up our institutions, make them permeable and make collaboration and partnership routine.  One key institution that has increasingly become an easy scapegoat is the public service itself.  Public servants would like nothing more than the room to reinvent themselves: to strengthen their policy and advisory capacity, working with universities and think tanks and civil society to develop options and assess their implications; to invent more modern ways to implement policies that capture and respect our diversity and draw on the strengths of  the private and voluntary sectors, with enough flexibility to respond to local circumstances.   There are some things that only government can do but even these it cannot do alone.  It is time to develop new mechanisms and new partnerships for defining and delivering public goods.  It is time to bring citizens back in, to promote civic duty, informed and engaged citizenship and a more autonomous voluntary sector.    New technologies and social media could be brought to bear and old-fashioned town halls too.  Many models of such “new” approaches exist now, for example, in the environmental sector.  In the U.K., the RSA is testing models of civil participation, especially at the local level, with some success.  But none of this can flourish in a climate of distrust, cynicism and anger. None of this works when our leaders pander to our fears and poke at our fault lines.

3. And as difficult as it will no doubt be, we ought to engage Canadians in developing options for electoral reform.  Now that the UK is going to consider the issue we will be pretty much the only ones who haven’t given it a shot at the federal level.   Some have argued that decline in voting may not be a problem, may in fact signal that people are pretty satisfied.  The evidence suggests otherwise.  The decline is a sign of malaise and contributes in turn to a decline in legitimacy.  Making voting more meaningful and fairer in a way that makes government more cooperative, and includes important voices not now heard may well be the place to start.

2 Responses to “The Age of Deference is Over – What Now?”
  1. B York says:

    On your second point, Alex, you might be interested in checking out this engagement strategy put together by a Red River College instructor to encourage greater voter participation in the upcoming Winnipeg municipal elections.

    I applaud any efforts that lead to informed civic participation and there are many lessons to be learned and applied. What happened with the 2008 prorogation is a disgrace because it unveiled how many people had little understanding of how our parliamentary system works.

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