Democratic Innovation and the Citizen as a “Barn Raiser” with Peter MacLeod of MASS LBP

Photo of citizens meeting at a table to learn and discuss Metrolinx reform. Democratic innovation at work!

In episode #6 of the Working Together Podcast, I interview Peter MacLeod who founded MASS LBP–an organization that is pursuing the long-game of democratic innovation.

What does democratic innovation look like? Well, in MASS LBPs case, it is a reinvention of public consultation through the pioneering use of Civic Lotteries and Reference Panels.

To get a better idea of what this means, let’s look to their name and ask the first question, what exactly does “MASS LBP” stand for?

As Peter has described, it is inspired from a Thomas Paine quote: “there is a mass of sense lying in a dormant state which good government should quietly harness.” The quote expresses an evocation of the role of government to tap into that latent intelligence called common sense. So, the MASS part of the name is a tip of the hat to Paine and 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.

Another way to put it is that MASS LBP spends their time working at the intersection of our 21st century mass society and the 18th century political institutions that struggle to keep up. They help governments “keep up” by providing strategy, research and public engagement services–being most famous for their civic lotteries and reference panels. Their goal is to “create greater clarity for [their] clients so they can make decisions that enjoy public confidence and support.”

And like Working Together, MASS LBP believes in people:

“Given the opportunity to participate in a thorough, fair, and inclusive process, citizens are ready to provide constructive advice, offering officials the intelligence, perspective, and sensitivity that difficult public issues require.”

Here here!

Some Big Ideas Exchanged: the Common-place Democratic Innovation of the Constituency Office, Choosing your Business Model, Town Halls and Murder Trials, How to Create a Learning Society, the Importance of Sincere Clients, and more!

  • The constituency office as the site of lively political engagement and democratic innovation. (Peter’s academic work on constituency offices demonstrates the value of looking to the least-likely, and least-flashy places for democratic innovation. Usually in ramshackle strip malls on the edge of town, the constituency office is the opposite of the flashy public engagement outreach efforts of the government. Yet it is at these locations, and through the men and women who attend them, that the citizen can have a surprising degree of impact on their representative.)
  • Thinking of starting something innovative? Choose your business model wisely! (Become an academic or a research organization? Well, then you’re tied to academic constraints… Become a nonprofit or a charity? Well, then you’re tied to fundraising and campaigning… Become a business? Well, then you’re tied to the demands and constraints of the market. Where do you have the most autonomy? Where do you have the most flexibility? Whatever you are starting, don’t get caught up in the “this is always how it’s done” trap. Whatever it is you are creating, find yourself becoming the accidental think-tank or business.)
  • Democratic innovation takes far longer than product or service innovation. (The market can respond instantaneously to a new product or service. It’s either something that people or businesses want, or something that they don’t. Experimenting and implementing democratic innovations, on the other hand, requires a long track record of success and the patience to wait-out multiple electoral cycles before politicians and citizens understand the new approach.)
  • “Town hall” stereotypes (captured so well by Parks and Rec) really come about because of the unconscious design choices made when we plan one. (Instead of sleepwalking into planning a town hall, first define the problem of citizen engagement accurately: it’s not about angry citizens and disconnected politicians, its about how the encounter between government and governed might be better designed. How people work together is as delicate a design process as a well-thought out stage performance: the meeting, the space, the props, the sequencing… all of it is performed by everyone involved.)
  • We would never see a sandwich board outside of a courthouse advertising: “Murder trial this afternoon! Jurors wanted!” Yet, we do the same for policy engagement and wonder why our public engagement skews in the direction of “interested parties”. (There are only a few situations where “sandwich board” engagement works–most involving the choice of where to go grab a sandwich during lunch. We need to more actively “fish” for participants beyond the circle of those who are most interested and have the most time and flexibility to devote to deliberation.)
  • Thinking about and designing different roles for “the citizen” (or any role for that matter). (Peter’s concept of the active citizen as a blend between “survey-taker and barn-raiser” is perfectly put… in one moment, we are too caught up in our day-to-day lives to become overly involved in the political life of our communities, in another moment we are excitedly prepared to roll-up our sleeves and volunteer our weekend for a cause we care about. It all comes down to personal efficacy: we want to learn about and understand the issues that concern our community, and we want to feel like our input and opinions are heard, understood, and seriously considered in-turn. It all comes down to a more invigorated exchange between learners.)
  • The importance of sincere clients: MASS LBP’s long-term business interests are closely aligned with the long-term success of citizen deliberation, so they pick their clients carefully. (Are you being asked to be a contractor on a last-minute initiative with impossible timelines? Are you feeling more and more like a rubber stamp in a bigger process? If you are a contractor, like MASS LBP, taking on the wrong client puts one’s portfolio of work at risk. More importantly, one’s ability to demonstrate the success and applicability of an innovative approach is put at risk.) 
  • Beyond and outside of the learning organization: part-adult education and part-policy development, creating a learning society. (An important concept. It recognizes that nobody has the answers and that everyone is learning. The importance of designing appropriate relationships between different learners, who are each situated in their particular role, becomes paramount. The MP, MLA or councillor is learning about their work and their role as much as the citizen is learning about a healthcare issue, or a planning issue. At some point, multiple roles meet, and things will go better if each others’ public and private interests are mutually empathized and understood. The intersection of these roles is a design problem that needs to be solved, particularly as we strive to create new relationships between existing roles–as in the case of the citizens reference panel–and new roles within existing relationships–as in the case of social innovators and entrepreneurs.)
  • People want to have a sense of worth and value, people want to make a difference. If the system keeps telling them that they can’t make a difference, then they will walk away. (… and they will only come back for the “big leader” who has all the answers. This is the danger we face today, with totalitarianism and authoritarianism emerging in western democracies, we are seeing a different model of the citizen… no longer the far-removed survey-taker, or the neighbourly barn-raiser… but the sports fan. The sports fan who puts all his/her money on their favourite player, and will loyally support the team no matter what. Treating complex and complicated policy issues with a closed mind, calcified by polemical debate points, the sports fan is out to see their side crush the competition and win. Does the sports fan want belonging more than personal efficacy? I’m still trying to figure that one out… What does democratic innovation look like in our emerging world of populist politics?)

References, allusions, and mentions implied:

People mentioned:

Credit where credit is due:

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