Retail politics and downsized democracy – Canadian Government Executive

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Digital Governance with Jeffrey RoyICT
May 7, 2012

Retail politics and downsized democracy

Toronto’s new mayor, Rob Ford, has pledged to cut city council in half. Although such downsizing is unlikely to be realized (as politicians are understandably reluctant to vote themselves out of a job), the notion struck a chord with many Torontonians. Along with tax cuts and reduced waste, Ford is all about efficiency and directness. Less conversation and compromise and more control – or such at least was the campaign mantra.

Toronto is not unique. Recently, Halifax councillors considered (and ultimately rejected) a proposal, much supported by the local Chamber of Commerce among other groups, to trim the size of Council: streamlining and efficiencies were again the predominant themes. While no election is pending here, it bears noting that a recent survey conducted by the municipality reveals a profound level of dissatisfaction with the state of local democracy and the perceived disconnect between political processes and citizen’s voices.

What these examples have in common is an understandable desire to achieve greater efficiency at a time of ballooning public deficits: in some quarters there is also a public backlash against expansionist government policies in recent years. Tied to such dynamics, and further accentuated by an ever expanding online universe, is an application of market principles to democratic processes that may reshape our politics and notions of political leadership.

Take Rob Ford, for example. On the one hand, supporters laud the spike in voter turnout rate to more than one half of all eligible voters (not all of which voted for Ford, of course) as a strong political endorsement and a sign of democratic strength. Yet others point out that his highly successful campaign was precisely successful in so far as it “sold” a carefully packaged product (i.e., a direct and attractive campaign manifesto) to willing buyers who, in turn, were encouraged to act first and foremost in a rational, consumer-like manner.

Indicative of the rise of an electronic marketplace (though not necessarily a polity, even as some might reject such a distinction), Ford’s public appearances in the closing weeks of the campaign were minimal, as were overt forms of enthusiasm such as large-scale rallies. Instead, the campaign focused on controlling the message (product), identifying supporters (buyers), and closing the deal.

Many political operatives from federal and provincial parties publicly acknowledged the Ford campaign’s effectiveness. Indeed, it is not unrelated that the federal Conservatives have tried to eliminate public funding of political parties as they are the acknowledged front-runners of grassroots fundraising and are generally more inclined to view political processes through the lens of the marketplace.

The profoundly important question for emerging forms of electronic democracy is whether efficiency and competitive choice are the guiding principles that matter most.

First, instead of a more informed and engaged citizenry we may be witnessing the rise of populist consumerism. Here the Internet has democratized fundraising, but mainly when visibility and competition are high. Such spending therefore fuels advertising and imaging, much of it television-based, that drowns out community organizing and grassroots debate. Much of the online chatter via traditional media outlets is reactionary and negative, ironically with a sampling of the more sensational comments posted on television.

The second and very much related lesson is the glaring absence in the electronic and online realms of discussion and debate of innovative political mechanisms to nurture more reasoned debate and, most importantly, deliberation. While some might point to councils and legislatures as the appropriate venues, such a call amounts to little more than nostalgia or blind faith. As more and more people go online to find and exchange information, and mobilize others to do so, it is inherently dangerous to abandon the online world to market forces alone.

Indeed, back in Toronto it is time for Mayor Ford to begin anew in striking a conversation with fellow councillors and voters (who are citizens as well as consumers) about the future of a large, diverse and immensely complex city. Compromises are inevitable, and he will ultimately be judged less by ongoing polls (measuring market appeal) than by legislative action and the impacts of the measures adopted by the new Council. How he fares will be a fascinating and consequential case study of the clash between an electronic and electoral marketplace and a more structured and deliberative polity.

It may be that the central questions for Ford and all city councillors are less about political downsizing than reinvention: supplementing traditional representational venues and processes with new forms of public engagement both offline and online. If this past decade has witnessed a transformation of the customer, it may be that the great project for the next one lies in rethinking the role and place of the citizen in a vibrant and at least partially online democracy.


Jeffrey Roy is Associate Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (roy@dal.ca).

About this author

Jeffrey Roy

Jeffrey Roy

Jeffrey Roy is Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Management. He is a widely published observer and critic of the impacts of digital technologies on government and democracy. He has worked with the United Nations, the OECD, multinational corporations, and all levels of government in Canada. He has produced more than eighty peer-reviewed articles and chapters and his most recent book was published in 2013 by Springer: From Machinery to Mobility: Government and Democracy in a Participative Age. Among other bodies, his research has been funded by the IBM Center for the Business of Government and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. He may be reached at: roy@dal.ca

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