The Facilitation of Civic Engagement: Who is Responsible for Reaching the Public And How Can Public Participation Be Improved? by Meaghan Langille
Lack of engagement is often a buzz phrase thrown around when examining the level of participation- whether it be by the students at a campus level or the general public. Generally speaking, this lack of engagement can be statistically linked to voter turnouts. More specifically, in the last federal election that occurred in 2008 the voter turnout was a mere 58.8% and it was the first time in Canadian history that the turnout for the federal election fell below 60% (Elections Canada, 2010). Prior to the last federal election, the Ontario provincial election in 2007 brought a mere 52.6% of Ontarians to the polls and also set the record for the lowest voter turnout in the province of Ontario’s election history (CBC News, 2007). With voter turnout hitting a staggering low in recent years, many questions are being raised around civic responsibility and engagement facilitation.
Questions such as: whose responsibility is it to raise public awareness? Who has the more prominent role: the media, the candidates or organizations promoting the act of voting (i.e. Apathy is Boring)? What can be done to address this reduced engagement? And how can the three aforementioned groups work collectively to engage the wider public or is collective action not a possibility? These pressing questions strive to reach the heart of voting- the people. Ultimately, when it comes down to casting a ballot it is a personal choice that can have a massive impact on the people as a whole. The truly unfortunate part though is that many people eligible to vote choose not to because the impact that their ballot casting has is often not realized and therefore, remains to be not acted upon.
However, with all of these questions in mind it needs to be determined how to effectively address them and ensure it is the general public who actually benefits from the solutions and actions being implemented. The first area of examination shall be the role of Members of Parliament within the framework of engagement and the way in which they are promoting or inhibiting a culture of participation.
Furthermore, it is MPs who should be playing an essential role in reaching out to the Canadian public –as they are the individuals vying for votes and would be the most effective individuals for promoting and defending platform points as platforms are what these candidates fundamentally represent. However, in a study conducted by the Canadian NGO Samara titled, “The Accidental Citizen?” one of the main findings was that many MPs came into the political fold accidentally and only sought to be nominated because they were asked to run for office (Samara Canada, 2011). This asking typically came about in one of three ways.
First, was the most common strategy and it was being approached by a friend or acquaintance who was already involved in a particular political party and these acquaintances often utilized flattery and persistence to sway the MP to run for office (Samara Canada, 2011).
The second strategy occurs when the MP is a contributing member of a political group designated to identify a candidate and end up deemed the “chosen one”. Or alternatively, they are involved in this group- such as a riding association and find that no candidates have stepped up, leading them to submit themselves for candidacy (Samara Canada, 2011).
The last and most rare strategy used is when the candidate is selected by the party leader and support by the national political party (Samara Canada, 2011).
With this context in mind, an idea of how our elected officials came to be so is presented and so brings back the question, what role do parliamentarians play in promoting civic participation and engagement.
Although this is mere personal opinion it must be noted that parliamentarians- especially candidates must put forth an immense effort in order to increase voter turnout, regardless if their decision to run was not entirely made on their own. The reasoning behind this is because although candidates may not have come to the decision completely on their own, they are still choosing to represent their party, its ideologies and platform and should be doing so in an effective manner.
This effective campaigning is something that is becoming progressively more accessible as the role of social media and technological communication continues to evolve. According to a study conducted by Pippa Norris, through examining and understanding the framework provided by the internet the major issue that is raised the initiative that governments, political parties, parliament and civil society take to use social media and internet tools available to them to either convey or receive information intended to connect the citizens to the state (2000). However, the internet contains a particular caveat according to Norris, it is that its full capacity can go unrealized in terms of the potential it offers for civic engagement (2000).
However, if this potential is realized the internet can have a highly holistic role in the process of civic engagement. More specifically, if implemented effectively, internet mediums can provide top-down information from parliament and bottom-up communication channels for civil society has a whole is provided to ensure engagement potential is maximized (Norris, 2000).
In this particular framework, this places equal opportunity on candidates, NGOs, social movement and citizens in general to actively participate in political discussion and discourse. Especially given how highly accessible the internet and social media is in our current society.
Furthermore, understanding the importance of social media is a good start to addressing civic engagement at its heart. According to a study conducted by McCoy and Scully, civic engagement at its heart “implies meaningful connections among citizens, institutions, and the political system…It implies active participation, with real opportunities to make a difference” (2002).
However, to ensure active participation that is associated with engagement a medium of communication must be made accessible. More specifically face-to-face communication between citizens and parliamentarians on issues of common concern is essential for individuals to effectively participate and contribute (McCoy and Scully, 2002).
Thus, social media may not be the answer for improving civic engagement of electorates but it can be used as an effective communication tool paired with more personal interaction. This interaction is essential for individuals to feel they are actively participating and contributing to the political process in a meaningful way.
CBC News (2007). “Ontario Turnout a Record Low”
Elections Canada (2010). “Voter Turnout at Federal Elections and Referendums, 1867-2008”
Date Updated: 13 July 2010. Date Accessed: 28 March 2011.
McCoy and Scully (2002). Deliberative Dialogue to Expand Civic Engagement: What Kind of Talk Does Democracy Needs? National Civic Review 91(2) 117-135. http://media.wiley.com/assets/80/84/jrnls_ncr_jb_mccoy9102.pdf
Norris, P (2000). Democratic Divide: The Impact of Parliaments Worldwide. American Political Science Association. http://www.hks.harvard.edu/fs/pnorris/Acrobat/apsa2000demdiv.pdf
Samara Canada (2011). “The Accidental Citizen?” Toronto, ON http://www.samaracanada.com/Summary_of_findings