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National Opinion Centre

Electoral reform, a renewed Senate, more open government—Canadians have some big plans to strengthen their democracy. But sometimes it’s the little things that count. Take messages: Is there any connection between the state of our democracy and a willingness to return phone calls or e-mails?

An impressive body of evidence suggests there is. Over the last thirty years, Harvard professor Robert Putnam has been documenting the contribution social networks make to democracy. These networks include social groups of all kinds, from political parties to bowling leagues.

Of course, all societies have social networks but Putnam’s work shows how in democracies they are more open and egalitarian than elsewhere. Ordinary people have access to them and use them to gather information, share ideas and build relationships. Social networks enhance our personal freedom and make our lives better.

Our willingness to respect the norms that shape these networks and our trust in others to do the same is critical to making them work for us—something Putnam calls “social capital.”

For instance, if someone asks a business associate for a meeting, all things being equal, he/she should be able to expect a reply. If it isn’t forthcoming, that person’s ability to plan could be seriously compromised. The more this happens, the less trust he/she will have in the network and the weaker it becomes. Which raises an issue.

Based on my (admittedly anecdotal) research, the number of chronic non-responders is growing, that is, people who feel free to send messages, but equally free to ignore or fail to respond to those they receive.

Economists call this the free rider problem. Public goods like parks or clean air, they tell us, are accessible to everyone; but that makes it difficult to prevent someone from enjoying the benefits of a public good, even when they are unwilling to help maintain it. Chronic non-responders are the free riders in our messaging system.

But it’s not just that they take without giving. Their failure to play by the rules undermines our trust in the messaging system and those who use it; and that compromises the quality of the social networks this system helps to maintain. In Putnam’s language, free riders are consumers of social capital, but not builders of it. Can we do anything about this?

Perhaps it is time for some frank discussion. In this spirit, I offer a few comments on some of the most common excuses from chronic non-responders. They are hardly meant as the definitive word on the subject, nor am I targeting anyone in particular; just sketching the terrain as I see it.

Do you know how many message I get every day?” Some jobs generate an endless stream of messages—more than any single person could answer. But messages that are linked to a person’s position or role usually aren’t from friends and colleagues (our social networks) and don’t require a personal response. The sensible solution is to sort the collegial ones from the more business-like ones, which can then be dealt with differently, say, by support staff or even through mass emails. This frees up time for the receiver to respond to messages from colleagues and friends.

I’m incredibly busy.” When I tested this excuse on friends they replied with a huff. “We’re all busy,” scoffed one. In their view, good managers schedule time for different tasks. People who say they’re too busy to reply to colleagues and friends are likely using their response time for other tasks, possibly even to do more engagement, which produces even more messages that go unanswered. The rule, advised one friend, is that if you’re too busy to reply, you’re too busy to send.

Not returning the call was my response.” Sometimes refusing to respond—silence—is the only option, such as when a sender is badgering the receiver. But it is always dangerous to assume that silence carries a clear message. As any marriage counselor will attest, silence is often explosively ambiguous—the equivalent of a neutron bomb to trust. A good rule of thumb here is that if the sender really knew the answer to the question, he/she probably would not have asked it. Some kind of answer is usually called for, even if it’s only to say that there’s nothing more to say.

I’m just disorganized.” It is difficult to believe anyone would offer this as an excuse for failing to respond, but people do. Someone who is chronically disorganized should hire an assistant or seek counseling, rather than asking the indulgence of others.

To be clear, nothing said here suggests that every message deserves a response. Many don’t: people who ask something inappropriate, call repeatedly, are rude, or send personalized spam should not expect colleagues or friends to respond.

And, yes, sometimes people really can be too busy to answer. My comments are aimed at the growing number of free riders who simply find it easier not to respond and then use that time for other things—many of whom are themselves heavy users of the messaging system and highly dependent on it to achieve their own goals.

Social networks are a critical part of the infrastructure that connects us to each other; a strong and effective messaging system is therefore vital to our democracy. Without it, we cannot use these networks to achieve our goals and to maximize our freedom.

So here’s the main lesson: messaging is a two-way street. If it is an opportunity, it is also a responsibility. Someone who is unwilling to hit Reply, has no business pushing Send.


Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate, Policy and Engagement, at Canada 2020, Canada’s leading, independent progressive think-tank. Don is an internationally recognized expert on democracy and Open Government. Most recently, he served as the Government of Ontario’s principal advisor on its Open Dialogue initiative. The views expressed here are those of the columnist alone. Don can be reached at: or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan 

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
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