Today’s Unpopular Culture event Government Engagement: deliberative democracy, civil administration and the process of engaging government in decision making was a great example of people’s expectations from the Festival of Ideas and its’ fringe event.
Chaired by Ianto Ware the panel consisted of Teresa Crea, Brenton Caffin, Will Emmett and Lisa Phillip-Harbutt. Each came with their own experience of engaging government on community issues from both the outside and within.
While it was pitched as an event that “will discuss how you can get the government engaged, what role it can play in your initiatives and projects and how we can break down the sense of ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ to truly include the government in the Decision Making process,” it really was about understanding the system you want to engage.
Now before we start talking about engaging government we must start by defining community. While we can turn to the dictionary for one definition this panel immediately demonstrated that community is wide and varied. Will believed it covered a broad range of people who are affected by policy while Teresa saw them as “fluid, complex, layered and constantly evolving”.
For me, Lisa had nailed it. It can be anyone with similar interests or needs but it is “not a community unless it comes together and acts as a community”. This coming together and acting as one is imperative in engaging government. Cohesively you must agree on how you will be represented and what it is you stand for.
If collectively you cannot come to this point you effectively cannot break through what revealed to be an entrenched system out of touch with an evolving world. Teresa was the first to call the elephant in the room and state “engagement is problematic” and it is so because of the processes we have in place.
It is a one size must fit all and as Brenton argued it is a system that as a whole does not celebrate individuals or autonomy. We have systems set up for the masses that means decisions are made for the majority and leave little room for individual needs. What is desperately needed is a system in government that allows individual decision-making that is embraced and not to be feared.
According to Lisa it is this fear that is stopping us from being heard. So if you have a sole cause, you will struggle to find a place in government that will hear you. Hence why community is so important in this debate.
As Lisa argues, like-minded individuals coming together under one representation, with a bit of art activism, and you stand a chance of breaking through. But she believes it is more than this, we also need active citizenship and while we are doing it in small pockets it is not enough to create change.
But for Brenton and Will being active is still not enough, we need to take risk aversion out of the government decision-making process. This risk comes in many forms. It is the risk in following through an issue and the risk in shutting it down. Regardless it is so entrenched it is kicking the life out of grass roots movements and diluting it when you do manage to move through the system.
Yet Teresa says the frustration goes further than risk aversion. She believes the lack of transparency in the administrative process means communities do not know how decisions are being made and why they are moving (or not moving) through the system. Without this we cannot see the clear avenues that exist to work through the bureaucratic system.
Speaking from a political level Brenton argued we also do not understand the frustration of politicians who must speak on issues in news bites. Perhaps then the media should engage in “more knowledge and wisdom” as Lisa put it. Grand idea but I do not believe journalists would honestly know what that means when the headlines are granted to whoever shouts the loudest.
This in turn sets the agenda for which community issue government will engage in. Leading me to think should we really be having a session on “how to engage the media to make change in government”.