In an interview with The Toronto Star last week, the prime minister expressed regret that in its first term his government didn’t always do enough “to bring Canadians along” on big initiatives. Ideally, it would be “involving Canadians as active, engaged citizens on the work we’re doing,” he said.
As a team with expertise in public engagement, we thought we’d weigh in.
The Liberals’ current agenda includes some ambitious social-change initiatives, such as Reconciliation, systemic racism, Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD), and fighting climate change. To defeat the pandemic, they must mobilize the entire country.
All would benefit from better citizen engagement but what, exactly, does that mean? Trudeau is on the right track when he says that “to bring people along” it is not enough that they know what’s going on, they also need to feel it. We think that his government could build on this insight to make public consultations much more effective and meaningful for Canadians.
Engagement Should Challenge How We Think and Feel
One way that governments try to bring people along on initiatives is by “informing” them. Providing the right facts and information can raise awareness on issues such as Reconciliation or racism, which is helpful.
But knowing that, say, racism exists and is wrong is not enough to end it. As Trudeau suggests, attitudes like these are also anchored in our values and emotions – in how we “feel” about others. Facts and information are rarely enough to change or eliminate negative feelings.
Real change requires adjustments at an emotional as well as an intellectual level and engagement can help. The key lies in something we call public narratives.
A public narrative is a theme or motif that people use to give order and meaning to a complex set of facts, values, emotions, and more. Basically, narratives give us a viewpoint or mental map of a situation.
For example, our traditional views on treating illness are shaped by a narrative in which death is the primordial enemy and anything that postpones it is a victory. Causing death when life can be preserved is a terrible wrong.
Narratives like this are deeply embedded in our culture. We internalize them early in life and they become part of our shared identity and worldview.
But these narratives can and do evolve. Many people have watched their loved ones suffer or lose their faculties before dying. The experience can be heart wrenching and those who go through it often come out changed. The public narrative around treating illness no longer fits their experience, and they want to see it changed.
Public Consultations Tend to Divide Where they Should Unite
The lesson for governments is that successful social change often requires narrative building. As circumstances change, so do people’s experiences. Society evolves and, eventually, public narratives are called into question and need a reset, say, on treating illness, protecting the environment, or responding to systemic racism.
Let’s note, however, that turning our attention to the role of values and emotions in engagement doesn’t mean that facts no longer matter. The challenge is to find a narrative that aligns complex emotions AND informs people – to arrive at a viewpoint that resonates with Canadians’ emotions and is truthful and accurate:
Unfortunately, traditional public consultations weren’t designed for this kind of deliberation. Far from reconciling competing facts, values and emotions, they tend to pit them against one another, without doing the hard work of aligning them.
Take the Department of Justice’s consultations on MAiD. Canadians were invited to fill out a questionnaire, which allowed officials to tally up how many people feel one way vs. another. The Department also held a series of roundtables, where select experts and stakeholders were invited to discuss their views on MAiD.
Processes like this are more likely to divide than to unite people. Advocates at the table may be polite about their differences (or not), but narrative building is not part of their agenda. In their view, their job is to make the case for their views, while defending them against criticism, much like lawyers in a court case. Processes like this tend to sharpen and deepen the differences.
By comparison, narrative building discourages competition and instead promotes collaboration by setting different “rules of engagement.” In our approach, participants must agree to:
- Recognize the legitimacy of one another’s lived experience.
- Focus the dialogue on how the narrative in question can be adjusted to align people’s emotions and understanding in new and better ways.
- Be guided by a facilitator who will ensure the rules are respected.
These rules commit people to listening empathetically to the experiences of others and working together to find innovative ways to reconcile tensions through a better narrative. In short, they put people’s emotional intelligence to work, along with knowledge and facts. Done well, this should lead to a win/win.
Ministers and Parliamentary Committees Should Lead Public Dialogues
Finally, regarding Trudeau’s goal of ensuring his government “brings people along,” we think ministers and/or parliamentary committees could and should do more to engage the public directly on narrative building in areas such as systemic racism, climate change, and MAiD.
This would be a departure from the usual “communications approach,” where a minister or leader uses speeches and other tools to deliver a fully formed narrative. In our approach, politicians are as much facilitators as a decision-makers. They present ideas to the public, but they also engage the public in a dialogue about them and adjust and adapt the narrative as the dialogue progresses.
The goal is to have government draw on the public’s experiences to build the narrative, while showing real give and take in its interactions with Canadians. This assures the public of a meaningful role in the process, which, in turn, builds legitimacy around the narrative. In Trudeau’s language, it “brings them along” and makes them “feel” that they are part of the change.
Unfortunately, most of the government’s public consultations barely scratch the surface of this kind of engagement. If Trudeau really wants to bring Canadians along, why not start by hauling engagement over to the other side of this competitive/collaborative divide?
Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate at the Institute on Governance and an internationally recognized expert on public engagement, governance, and policy development. For more, visit his website at: www.middlegroundengagement.com
Andrew Balfour is Managing Partner at Rubicon Strategy in Ottawa.