The fine art of remapping public consultation and flexing the civic muscle in a meaningful way.

by Edward Wilkinson-Latham

The Toronto Standard

Based in Toronto, MASS LBP is a new kind of company which works with western governments and corporations to improve public consultation and engagement. Now in their fourth year of business, we sat down with the company’s principal and co-founder Peter Macleod and discussed some of the flaws with what we call democracy and the ramifications of continuing on our present economic course.

What is Mass LBP exactly?

There is a great quote attributed to the American revolutionary, Thomas Paine, who said “there is a mass of sense lying in a dormant state which good government should quietly harness” and I think it’s a strong evocation of the role of government to tap into that latent intelligence called common sense. So our name is a tip of the hat to him and I suppose also to the sociologists who have tried to make sense of what it means to live in a mass society. LBP simply stands for Led by people. It’s a bit of whimsy. Basically, we spend our time working at the intersection of twenty-first century mass society and the 18th century political institutions that struggle to keep up.

How does it differ from other public consultation models?

We want to reinvent public consultation, because we believe much of it is broken and fuels the sense of estrangement and a decline in trust and confidence. Polling creates a phantom public that haunts our politics and encourages politicians to play the margins and focus in very narrowly on specific areas. The consequence of that bad design creates trepidation and perpetuates the mistrust of politicians and a lack of faith in the public.

What are the roots of Mass LBP and why did you start it?

Well, I’m a PhD drop-out, and I suppose part of the reason I left my program was because I got a call from my former professor at Queen’s who had been appointed academic director of the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly. Long story short, I ended up with something of a front row seat to the process. Because democratic innovations don’t happen very often, we discussed how we could build on the experience of the Assembly beyond a couple of books and academic papers and apply this new approach to public engagement in a wider context. That was the genesis of Mass.

Explain Mass LBP’s Civic Lottery and Citizen Reference Panel process?

We talk about manufacturing democratic legitimacy — a phrase that is often misunderstood. Take, for instance, a jury in the court system. The process creates legitimacy because a representative group of citizens has the chance to become well informed before taking a difficult decision. It’s legitimate because we trust it. This is our starting point. I’ve come to realize that the real problem with more conventional approaches to public consultation isn’t that we ask too much from people, but we ask too little. So imagine this: we typically send out 5-10,000 letters to randomly selected households. We ask for between three and six Saturdays of people’s time to look at incredibly complicated policy issues like health care or the work of regional government. Remarkably, 4-7% of households respond and volunteer. From among those respondents, we randomly select 24-36 participants to serve on our panel — again, it’s a bit like a non-compulsory, non-binding jury that supported by an extensive learning phase. Our goals are to see that the public is better informed, that trust and confidence in public institutions is enhanced, that the participants have a sense of their own ‘democratic fitness’ and lastly, that our clients learn along the way.

MASS LBP as a business model – how does it work?

We are a private company but one with a real sense of public mission. That mission is about reinventing public consultation and changing the way citizens and government interact. Our revenues come from a mix of engagement, strategy work and research, principally for the broader public sector. We’re very mindful that public dollars are often used to fund our work which is why we’re very open about our wages and contracts. My friends are a bit horrified that we post our salaries on our website — but for us it’s an example of how we try to be different and true to our values.

The last Canadian election was the fourth in seven years. Was it the election that no one wanted?

There’s no question that election fatigue has set it. Provincially, it’s one of the advantages the Liberals enjoy right now. Their “major minority” government is safe in the medium term because there’s little interest in another trip to the polls. Federally, the Tories finally have their majority and this will calm things somewhat. The bigger issue here is voter turnout. Federally it’s bad, provincially it’s worse and municipally it’s abysmal. It continues to decline with each election and no one seems to be able to get a hold of the hand brake. One of the things I’m particularly interested in right now are those countries that have maintained high voter turnout without resorting to compulsory voting. Denmark is a striking example with upwards of 80% of the electorate routinely casting a ballot. Why? Well there are many factors, but its interesting that in Denmark each party maintains a separate arms-length foundation that focusses on developing an informed electorate and runs popular adult education programs. Is this a model we could emulate? Quite possibly.

Are we breeding a culture of individuals and does that undermine the amount people are prepared to give back to society?

I think there’s a danger that we sometimes conflate our ideas about contemporary culture and our assumptions about essential human traits. Yes, our culture has become highly materialistic and individualistic, but that doesn’t mean our culture captures the full range of human motivations — not even close — which may be part of the reason that depression is so prevalent in modern societies. At MASS we’re trying to rehabilitate the public in part by creating opportunities where citizens can stretch their imaginations and flex their civic muscle in meaningful ways. It could be that we’re approaching something of a reckoning point. If the key question of twentieth century politics was some variation on “what does the public want?”, I think the question for twenty-first century politics will be “what is the public for?” Right now politics offers a pretty thin answer: pay your taxes, vote (maybe), obey the rules, keep your nose clean. But this neglects the productive capacity of the public to offer anything to our society. It’s this deficiency that I think is profoundly out of sync with deeper currents and fails to satisfy many of our basic needs for belonging, purpose and a sense of shared achievement.

Is Toronto becoming even more stratified according to income and what are the ramifications of that in terms of growth for the city?

I think the ramifications are very serious and they’re already being felt. We’re in the midst of a Toronto-wide residents’ panel looking at the implications of David Hulchanski’s “three cities” research, which is a real wake-up call. We need to understand that there’s no faster way to shred consensus on the importance of public education, transportation, healthcare and immigration than to let these trends continue. It’s absolute acid to the very things we esteem and the social achievements which make Toronto, much less Canada, work. There is however a harder reality that needs to be faced and that’s the very unpleasant transition from a high or moderate growth to a low growth economy. Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation is the must-read play book to understand the macro economics that are at work. Personally I think we need to shift the conversation from how states can redistribute wealth more effectively — which has grown stale — to the business models companies use to distribute earnings amongst their employees and shareholders. Firm-level distribution is a key for unlocking both greater competitiveness and improved social outcomes. Until we get some traction here it will continue to be a race to the bottom as we unravel guarantees to workers and squeeze public and private sector wages to balance books and juice profits.

Are public demonstrations any way to get governments to listen and affect policies directly or do they merely act as a way to blow off steam temporarily?

The Occupy movement deserves full credit for putting growing inequality on the public agenda. Within the 99% there is another significant demographic and that’s youth unemployment and underemployment. Approaching 20% in most developed countries and higher still in developing nations, we have the makings of a full-blown generational crisis. I think protests do matter, but they become truly effective when they’re coupled with energetic political actors who can synthesize the argument, put forward policies that give redress and go into the legislatures to get it done. Right now I’m afraid we’re in a holding pattern until those leaders emerge.

Ed Wilkinson-Latham is a Senior Editor at The Toronto Standard