From the Countryside

I have been of the opinion my whole adult life that checks and balances are the lifeblood of a healthy democracy. When these checks and balances are out of whack, what I call a democratic deficit occurs. And, for full disclosure, the opinions written in this column are my opinions and mine alone to join and encourage debate.

First, is a deficit in the financial sense which is the inability to keep to a budget thereby causing overspending. Local government is prohibited by law from running deficits. Accumulated deficits at the federal and provincial levels result in corporate debt for which payments must be made. Deficits translate into debt.

Provincial and federal governments use deficit financing as a tool for economic stimulus and as a way of not paying the piper today, by increasing taxes. By this method we ask our children and grandchildren to assume the payment responsibilities at some later date. A slippery slope that gets more slippery, the further we slide down it.

A democratic deficit is the failure of a governing body to perform its obligations under legislation in an open, transparent, timely and actively planned manner. Continuous failure or inattention to the results of these failures skews priorities of planning and delivery of services.

Repeated failure is sometimes a planned activity where either the governing body with a majority of votes and/or a strong Mayor /Chief Administrative Officer alliance controls success or failure with little input from outside sources.

This failure is easily disguised by simple actions, the inability of a Strategic Plan to report measurements on progress in a meaningful and practical manner, hard to fathom the facts through the fog. This is a practice that private business uses as a linchpin for success.

Second, is a compliant and by this compliance, a complicit civil service that knows how to use the system to their advantage better than the governors. Backing up this complicity to run a democratic deficit has been a generation of governors afraid to ask for results from staff without being called for interference. Sort of like hesitating to take down that guy on a breakaway for fear of being assessed a penalty.

Third, is a Council and members who think their primary role is that of corporate directors. A case well made at times but given lie by the inaccuracies and incompleteness of reporting on corporate results even quarterly. Their first role should and could be as active watch dogs for our assets and service delivery to us.

Fourth, is the inability of most Councillors to go against the wind and ask to be part of active and considered debate on all issues. A side to this dish is the inability of most, probably due to never seeing it, to question a Mayor on the framing of issues in black and white only. Nuances are particularly hard.

Fifth, is a furtherance of a ‘them against us’ attitude employed by Mayors and their supporters against ‘Fifth Estate’ opinions, suggestions and ultimately, derision by outside commentators such as citizens.

Sixth, is the continued failure of newspaper and media reporters, the ‘Fourth Estate’, to deliver their take on public affairs in an impartial manner. The continued gutting of their budgets sometimes leaves reporters with an excuse for their laziness in fawning over elected public figures. But pandering is just that, pandering.

Seventh, last but not least, is the public’s inability to not keep up with civic affairs. Whether by choice, in not caring or by chance, because they like people and ignore debate, the public ultimately bears the cost of a democratic deficit by their complicity of ignorance.

A divide and conquer attitude by Council  and a definite planned difficulty in getting access to Council results in citizens having little or no input, other than a social one with their governors. It makes for good photo opportunities, cheap volunteer labour, fundraising and back scratching but little in the way of debate in a Council term, let alone during a campaign for election.

Issues that could do with active and fulsome public input are denied such except for the minimum legislative input required. Is it any wonder big ticket issues such as water lines, sewage improvements and even streetscape improvement invite such rancor from the public and affected bewilderment from governors who talk down to them at every opportunity when questioned by their citizens? Who me?

Is it any wonder that citizens complain that they go to Council and are appalled by the lack of politeness to themselves or a fellow citizen by our governors? And this is usually after they have dealt with staff that could either solve a problem or, at the very least, describe a solution for the Council as good public servants. And when at Council, Councillors ask for a staff report on your concern because we wouldn’t want to encourage proactive behaviour by our staff, would we?

The democratic deficit is openly supported by staff that has a vested interest in not having active citizen input. They know that they are accountable to a budget but are not accountable to a Strategic Plan that has no measuring of accountability and results.

They know that asking for a business plan that could deliver on measurements including timelines to improve or streamline service delivery opens a can of worms that cannot be closed. Staff knows that all the talk of acting like private business by Councillors is just talk without those tools.

They know that lazy and compliant Councillors create less work. The idea of active citizens on committees gives staff nightmares and the ability to write concise reports to Council on why not. Councillors usually agree because it too is more work for them and a perceived challenge to their 4 year godly presence.

Staff mostly knows that they are protected. Protected by legislation and regulations, policies and procedures introduced by the boomer generation because good policy and more regulation fix all ills, don’t you know. And good staff know how to use these tools for their benefit when need be or ignore them as well, during election campaigns.

We gave away most of the powers of governing to staff during the seventies in the provincial and federal world and in the eighties in the municipal world. I have lived this change as a Councillor and a public servant.

I took the Clerk-Treasurers Course as a politician 30 years ago. I listened to lectures by professors, lectures to and at me by the 31 civil servants who needed the course and read the Tinsdale Course thoroughly. After two years of that, the bottom line for me was an overall dismissal of the abilities of average citizens to grasp the complexities of Municipal government by those who took the course for its designation. Such bunk!

Further to that was my continuing observation as a civil servant, that senior staff does not have any problem thinking they can or cannot hoodwink the average politician when the need is there. Remember that the pool of citizens dismissed in their education is also the raw material for their Governors, people with a job that has no job description, unlike the staff experts and paid consultants.

We can change the democratic deficit to a democratic surplus. An active and informed electorate would be a good place to start. A civil service that is civil and gives good service is a good second. Elected officials who don’t perceive everyone and everything different from their world view as a threat would be a fine third. I can hope.

John Russell




Leave a Comment