Sunday, February 26, 2012

None of Us is as Smart as All of Us

One of the oddities of a democracy is that there is no entrance exam, no educational prerequisites, no relevant experience that a candidate is required to have before getting nominated for election. To run for Prince Albert City Council, all you need is the specified number of eligible signatures on a nomination form and a financial deposit, and your name goes on the ballot. For city councillors, you have to live within the city boundaries, but not within the ward that you plan on representing.

One hopes that the electors take a variety of factors into consideration before casting a vote for their preferred candidate, but that's another one of the oddities of democracy. An elector is free to vote for whomever they wish, for whatever reasons that they consider important. No testing of what the issues are, or awareness of who the candidates are, just prove that you are who you say you are, and you're given a ballot to mark. And you have no legal obligation to vote, which is part of the reason why voter turnout tends to decrease every year.

But this oddity is also one of the beauties of democracy. People are elected to carry forward the views of those whom they represent, and then, collectively, to develop solutions to solve the problems of the community. The democratic system does not assume that the people who are elected have all the answers; it assumes that the collective thinking of a group of representatives of a community will come up with the best solutions that will work because they will have included a wide range of information and input.

But even this group of nine, in the case of city council, doesn't have all the answers. We have experts in various fields as part of city administration, with the expectation that they will provide us with the best possible advice before we have to make the decisions that, ultimately, we are held responsible for. And we understand that our experts don't have all the answers either - they need to ask others for advice and information when circumstances require it. A good example of this is the current water situation - city staff are working with Environment employees, not just on developing a solution for making our drinking water safe, but they're also getting assistance and advice on how best to keep the public informed, because Environment employees have much more experience on how to do this during an emergency.

Members of city council also have an obligation to ask questions to find the best possible solutions. That's the main reason why we attend conferences - to find out how other cities deal with similar problems, then bring back what we've heard and share it with others, both other council members and city staff. And we should also use our informal networks - the people that we know who have training or experience in specific areas. For example, if I have a question about boulevard trees, I'll go first to Andrea, because that's what both her education and career have been focused on for more than thirty years, and there's no one who works for the city who has that kind of background. But if I have a question about tree insects, she will direct me to her colleague who specializes in that particular area - he can provide better advice in that area than she can.

So that's how democracy can work to come up with the best solutions. Where things fail is if anyone in the chain of information gathering thinks that they know it all, and thus don't need to ask questions or seek advice, or accept advice when it's offered. Things can also fail if those we expect to provide us with the best information don't give us all of the relevant information, for whatever reason. And it really fails when those of us who are going to be responsible for the final decision don't ask enough questions, or accept answers that seem odd, or criticize those who are trying to find more information, because we're in a rush to get things done, or would rather that certain information doesn't come to light.

As is often the case, it comes down to basic communication. We need to pay attention, and listen, to those who know more than we do. And once we've listened, we need to take into account all of the information that we have, and use it to make a decision. Not everybody will agree with every decision that we make, but if we truly followed this process, our decisions would be defensible, and more likely to be supported by those who elected us to represent them.

"To listen is an effort; just to hear has no merit. A duck hears also." - Igor Stravinsky

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