We launched the Make Democracy Better project to build a space – on the ground, and online – where people could contribute to a discussion on the future of Democracy.
We were looking to achieve three things:

First: we wanted to start a conversation about the future of democracy, and begin formalizing a vision for a better democracy based on what we shared and what we heard.

Second: we wanted to identify a community of people who love democracy, but think it can be done better. Likely early adopters to new ideas that could change the way politics is done in Nova Scotia.

Third: We wanted to engage the people, organizations, governments and even businesses that would be necessary to carry out an action plan for a better democracy, and offer our own organization as a hub-like coordinating body through which this work could be organized.

We held three community engagement events in 2014 (in Bridgewater, Sydney and Antigonish) and shared the project with community volunteers in a number of other communities

We’ve learned a few things since launching the project 

  • It’s been less about making people care, and more about finding and identifying the people who do.
  • We started with a very broad description of the problem, citing some (seemingly) unrelated symptoms that likely have a complex relationship to one another. While the energy at the events was high, many participants were hoping for a stronger sense of where the project might lead.
  • In addition to wanting a bit more focus, many participants admitted feeling unprepared and unknowledgeable about some of the areas where the conversation lead. In order to be able to contribute, they wanted both focus and a better understanding of the issues.

The pivot

We took the feedback we received for the first events, and the feedback we’ve received from our gut-checks and built an approach that better meets participants where they are. This pivot also does better prepares us for the three goals outlined above, and leads well into later phases of the project: (2) Learning and Deliberation, and (3) Action.

Phase One Activities: Views Sharing

This phase of the project is the views sharing stage. The goal of this phase is to put many ideas on the table, with the understanding that if you are contributing, this won’t be your final chance to have a say. The goal is merely to map out the breadth of ideas and problems being assessed in order to start working towards a consensus on where to focus on.

In Depth Interviews

To meet the challenge participants identified in our first events – wanting a stronger understanding of the issues at play – we conducted in-depth interviews with people who have worked in and around the centre of politics in Nova Scotia. We’ve met with legislative reporters, former Premier’s Office staffers, senior and mid-level public servants, and individuals associated with parties across the spectrum, and those working in community and business groups that deal regularly with government.

We asked them about their observations of Nova Scotia democracy at its worst and at its best, and for insights into alternatives and reforms for the future that might help solve these challenges.  We’ll be sharing the learnings and insights from these interviews in blogs, in a presentation at the public events, and in a report to be published at the end of the views sharing phase.

Community Events

We’ll be holding events in all of the communities we’ve visited already and more that we haven’t visited. The purpose of these events will be to share the findings from the interviews, and to present attendees with four theme areas under which we’re looking for their insights. We’ll share some problem statements, some policy options, and challenge participants to discuss the issues and consider:

  • opportunities presented by each approach,
  • the possible downsides to various approaches,
  • real and perceived barriers to action, and
  • questions or concerns that require further consideration

Not only will we be looking for specific insights on each issue theme through this public engagement process, but we’ll also be looking to narrow the scope of the engagement, and to build a consensus among the community we engage about what to explore next. Using this feedback, and regular gut-checks we’ll return to the community with an opportunity to deliberate further on the issues in phase two.

The outcome and next phases

At the end of phase one we’ll have identified a community of people who have stepped forward with interest to see and be part of making politics work better in Nova Scotia. We’ll have a strong sense of what ideas need to be further unpacked, and what we need to learn and share before we deliberate on those ideas in phase two, and before taking action in phase three. We’ll have started the conversation. We’ll have catalogued all of this in a Views Sharing Report, and on our website at MakeDemocracyBetter.ca

A note worth making here is that the purpose of this engagement will not simply be to hand a report full of recommendations to provincial and municipal governments. Democracy is too important, and too complex to be stewarded by governments alone. The actions that will come from this engagement in phase three need to come from all of those we’ve engaged in the process: individual citizens, community organizations, local businesses, as well as governments need to be involved in this work.

In the next blog post: More on the problem and why it matters. 


Interested in knowing more about the three phases of engagement we’re working with? Check out Don Lenihan’s book “Rescuing Policy: The Case for Public Engagement”, available free here.


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