Over the past several months, I have become increasingly disheartened by a trend in our country: the distilling and distorting of complex policy questions into false choices between extreme positions.
By framing difficult public policy issues as debates, instead of discussions or dialogues, we risk undermining our ability to address them. They degenerate into a contest of wills, not a contest of ideas.
Worse, there is a growing tendency to think these difficult policy questions can only be answered by small groups of experts—that they are too complicated to be grasped by the general public. This attitude only deepens cynicism and distrust.
We live in an age where citizens and communities not only have instantaneous access to limitless information, they have an expectation that their views will be actively sought out and actually considered.
In this era of engagement, public and private sector institutions must collaborate with interested audiences in order to obtain social acceptance for the priorities they plan to pursue—what some call ‘social licence.’
For my part, I have never fully accepted the term ‘social licence’ because it implies there is a formal licensing process through which governments or companies can apply to obtain some kind of public approval certificate.
In reality, social acceptance is fluid and dynamic—constantly changing, hard to obtain and easy to lose. It must be monitored and maintained through diligent and vigilant interaction with those who have the ability to bestow it.
Better still, organizations and institutions should endeavour to engage their key audiences even before their policy goals are ever set—recognizing that co-created solutions are the most likely to succeed.
For developed and democratic countries such as Canada, very few policy considerations fall completely within the ambit of either the public or private sector—virtually all of the most pressing issues impact and encompass both.
In answering the challenging questions of our time, governments and companies are themselves answerable to the public—in their capacity as citizens, customers, taxpayers, investors, voters or employees.
As such, public engagement cannot be undertaken through some sham survey which asks people to make a stark choice between oversimplified options. To be effective, engagement must be meaningful.
Collaborating with stakeholder audiences not only expands the range of ideas to be canvassed, it ensures that the public has a vested interest in supporting the decisions ultimately taken.
There is no shortage of policy questions to be discussed today, owing to significant shifts in demographics and technology. And, the answer to those questions can come from anywhere and anyone—so let’s start listening.