Elephants in the room

June 28, 2016

Angry elephant

Positive Energy hosted a workshop recently on public confidence in energy decision processes.  The conversation focused on public authorities because energy regulators are struggling to engage communities and civil society.

The organizers introduced several “elephants” into the room because new social forces are impacting traditional decision processes.  These forces impact many sectors not just the energy world.

The list began with the decline of deference and the erosion of trust in organizations.  The public is increasingly skeptical that regulators have their best interests in mind.  They question whether they will do what they say.  They wonder whether they are even up to the job. Trump bangs this drum. Brexit proponents did the same. The right has done  a good job at driving a wedge between people and their own democratic institutions.  As a result, extreme political views are filling the void.

Social media is another powerful social force that has made matters worse. Fear mongers quickly become celebrities through social media. As a result, we live in a “post-truth” world where sound evidence struggles to be heard over celebrity. Point out Trump’s lies and he just doubles down on the rhetoric.  The warm reception of the return of the mandatory census in Canada was a welcome exception.  Evidence-informed policy making had a small win for a change.

The complex mix of forces impacting decision maker included the rise of a zero-risk-tolerance society and the shift away from communitarian values to a more fragmented society of individual interests.

In addition, several policy issues, that governments have been slow to tackle in Canada, were seen to confound the problem.  These issues included climate change, our relationship with Indigenous Canadians, and our ability to plan regionally and understand how the impact of a single decision can travel over time and geography.  Communities have long memories.

I would add the growing inequality gap into the list.  This underpins so many of the other social forces at play.

I was impressed that this conversation was happening since this is far better than denial.  I was invited to bring a community lens to the conversation. Community engagement has been a priority of local government for years. As a result, local governments have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t.  Yet, they still have much more to do to build public trust in local decision making.  Interestingly, when a public authority comes to town, with a decision that will impact the community, it is their local politicians that people turn to for answers and representation.