By Eliana Trinaistic, Social Impact Manager
Depending on the angle, a policy hackathon could be a simple gathering of interested parties having a conversation about political processes – how policies are being made or articulated. After all, policies are the main instrument of a government’s agenda and the key to public spending. In that context, some see policy hackathons as a disruption to top-down delivery by introducing fresh and creative public input. Hackathons are also community oriented because they need collaborative expertise to be successful. They are also experimental in the sense of abandoning expectations about the exact format of the final deliverable. Policy hackathons, however, are rare, usually initiated by universities and policy think-tanks. Certainly, without the help of the Policy Innovation Initiative, we at MCIS would not be able to organize one. The reason why is that nonprofits, although serving populations disproportionately dependent on particular policies, due to low capacity or operational pressures are often not in a position to challenge the fairness of relevant policy. But even more, if we look back at the history of Canadian government relations with the sector, there is a real risk of being perceived as too political, from not having the access to funding to losing the tax-exempt status (The Politics of Advocacy). Consequently, it should not be difficult to imagine how anxious we were in early 2018, while trying to envision how and why we want to engage in a language policy hackathon.
At that time we knew only two things for sure. First, that 2019 will mark the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Official Languages Act (revised only once in 1988 to incorporate the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that guaranteed language rights other than English or French in courts) and that the government is opening the Act for a review. The second thing we knew was that public consultations about the Act would be closed in May, seven gaps were projected to be discussed (access to justice, advent of new technologies, language of federal public services, Canada’s linguistic minorities, mandate and roles of the Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada, issues with official and Indigenous languages and who will govern the policy), and we would not have time to prepare ourselves and our stakeholders to contribute.
However, we also knew that because MCIS has been providing language services for over 30 years, connecting with thousands of language professionals, service providers and service users, we have a unique responsibility to provide our input in a deeper, if not more proactive way. Further, we also knew that one important gap not mentioned here and rarely addressed elsewhere in policy design, is that the vast majority of our stakeholders – newcomers to Canada, refugees, and 1st gen(eration) immigrants – are rarely included in those conversations.
We asked in one of our earlier blogs about civic literacy, “how much election information is (actually) understood by Torontonians, and whether civic literacy, the knowledge and ability to be involved in community and social changes, is at risk.” This question could be applied in this context too, with a common understanding that the lack of civic literacy, even if not purposefully developed, seriously impedes the ability to participate in political processes.
But let’s now just go one step back to share a personal story.
Like 95% of MCIS’ staff and language professionals, I am a 1st gen immigrant with graduate degrees from outside of Canada. I learned about Canadian civics sporadically, mostly from the CBC, history books, lectures, and a postgraduate degree in Canada. Despite all of it, I still feel intimidated by words like “policy” and “consultations.” However, over the past few years, I managed to participate in 2 town halls held in my predominantly immigrant Scarborough neighbourhood. These events shared some key similarities: attended by no more then 2-4 members of the public, felt intimidated by an empty room, decided not to speak out but to give my feedback online, comments were acknowledged but rejected (low volume of similar complaints), abandoned my future participation, thinking that there must be more to this process that I do not have time to learn and understand.
Until my daughter reached grade 12 I also believed that civic literacy/ influencing policies will be taught in school in lieu of understanding your voting rights and responsibilities, so I, as a byproduct of her education, will end up being better informed. This did not happen either and today, like many of the people I work, socialize or share my neighbourhood with and, perhaps many young voters too, I am still unable to answer the basic questions about how the consultation process enfolds (who calls it? How long is the call open? What are the rules surrounding transparency and data sharing?)
Nevertheless, the policy acumen I have been talking about here is not reduced to civic literacy or how to navigate the knowledge and ask challenging questions. When I began reflecting on this issue I also asked myself what motivates us to participate despite the lack of understanding or not being asked to participate. And what emerged, in both reflections and conversations I had with youth (Millenials and iGen) and 1st gen immigrants, was that participation is about “being empowered”. So maybe the perceived political apathy is really an outcome of power asymmetry rather than low civic capacity/ literacy.
Power is the ability to control outcomes and power asymmetry, a concept used in international development, warfare, and management practices, is defined as a state: “in which differences in status exist between individuals and groups of individuals within an organizational hierarchy and these differences result in differential ability to take action or cause action to be taken… the power balance influences information flow, competence (amount of relevant knowledge and skills available) which eventually negatively impacts decision making, effective communication, cooperation, collaboration and ability to change.” (1, p. 18)
While capacity is what we tend to focus on when we talk about citizen engagement, power asymmetry is often ignored. In his excellent article on Design Education’s Big Gap: Understanding the Role of Power, George Aye begs us to get deeply familiar with our own assumptions about power before we engage with each other and with our communities: “I’ve come to better understand that power is so many things at the same time: an emotion, a currency, a source of pride, a place of strength, a sign of vulnerability, an advantage to play, a lever to pull, a tool to wield with precision or without care. And it’s been present in every relationship I’ve ever had and will be present in every interaction yet to come.”
And here is why…
So, here we are, arriving closer to the core question of why community organizations and nonprofits need to get engaged with political discourse more often. Certainly, the capacity issue will remain relevant and various approaches to get funding or find creative, low-cost ways for increasing basic education regarding political processes, question framing, government agenda, consultations best practices, parliamentary calendars, and legislative history of the issues affecting our organization will still be necessary (in part II we will explain how the capacity question was addressed).
Yet our why was not about our capacity, but about power asymmetry.
As citizens we deserve more symmetric, balanced and reciprocal relationships with government and their instruments of power (policies). And our governments deserve the same: more symmetric, balanced and reciprocal relationships with their constituencies and their instruments of power (consultation feedback). The non-profit sector, the so-called “extended hand of the government,” is a representative of a relevant government policy executed via service delivery (in our case – language) to recipients in need of service. But the sector is also a representative of the recipients of services, as “an extended voice of constituency,” and is therefore able to provide governments with ongoing feedback in terms of whether the service actually meets the policy objectives/justifies public spending. This continuous, reciprocal feedback loop that could be mediated by the sector, facilitated by technology, and based on real time data rather than ideologies would address power asymmetry quite effectively.
If we stick to the frame we have now, the truth is that sometimes we will be invited to consultations, and sometimes we won’t. Sometimes what we want to discuss will be exactly relevant, while other times only peripheral (e.g. Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in relation to the Official Languages Act). But as an active mediator of political and civic life, a mediator of the feedback loop for our beneficiaries and governments, we can also decide on what needs to be discussed based on interests and agendas that are shared. The very good news here is that we will always be invited to consultations we initiate.
As Aye said, if we start with reflecting on the nature of the power we have as a community, as a currency of our pride, strength of our emotion, and ability to think creatively, we will be able to overcome our insecurity and vulnerability to influence a more symmetrical distribution of power. Inevitably, this will lead to better cooperation, collaboration and communication, creating more practically grounded conditions for real social change.
To be continued – Who and How of Language Policy Hackathon, Part II
- Passmore, B.H., Inductive Reasoning, Information Symmetry, and Power Asymmetry in Organizations, University System of Maryland, USA, From the Encyclopedia of Information Science and Technology (3rd edition) DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-5888-2.ch077
- Aye, G., Design Education’s Big Gap: Understanding the Role of Power, Greater Good Studio, via Medium (June 2, 2017)
- Zarei, H., Participants’ power asymmetry in public infrastructure projects, Department of Infrastructure Engineering University of Melbourne (December, 2017)
- Peter R. Elson, A Short History of Voluntary Sector-Government Relations in Canada, The Philanthropist, July 1, 2007
- Heather Yundt, The politics of advocacy: Are charities apathetic or afraid?, Charity Village, October 1, 2012