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More Behind Democracy Than Just Voting

Last month's Calgary Herald Black Mark series focused on lower voter turnout as a sign of "dwindling democracy." And while citizens voting, vibrant political parties and effective political processes are important characteristics of democratic health, not enough attention is paid to the contribution of other civil society organizations. The public square involves much more than politics. Joining civil society organizations is as much an act of citizenship as is voting.

On the one hand, we take it as a given that community groups, labour unions, chambers of commerce, and trade associations take positions on the issues of the day. We expect to read their opinions in the news and we understand that public opinion on issues is often informed by the back-and-forth between organizational spokespersons. On the other hand, we dismiss much of this as self-serving on the part of these organizations.

If the conversation is about undoing the dwindling of democracy, then the importance of civil society institutions is a necessary topic. Civil society organizations need to be challenged to think in terms of the public good. They are most compelling when they inspire a vision that benefits everyone, not just their members. They are uniquely positioned to bring the expertise of their constituency to bear on the issues of the day. In most cases, it turns out that the long-term interest of their constituency is best served by such a public good focus.

A cultural shift also needs to happen in how individuals view joining such organizations. Take a business person joining an industry association, for example.

One might consider it using a private cost-benefit analysis. Another approach would be to consider joining the association as an act of citizenship, in the same way that going to vote is making a civic contribution even if you are convinced that your vote is unlikely to alter the election's outcome.

Consider how an industry association shapes public life. It is almost a default reaction for politicians to seek credit (or be given blame) when the local job climate changes, but the vibrancy of the industry association can play as significant a role as general economic policy.

At the local level, most operators define their competition within their own product area.

In other words, a widget manufacturer only sees his or her competitors as being other widget manufacturers.

The nature of a global economy, however, is such that real competition happens between sectors rather than between companies.

While Company A may see Company B against whom they bid for specific jobs as their competitor, in the larger scheme of things a local industry is competing as a group against other similar groups in other regions (or depending on the product), on the other side of the globe. It is often the industry association that does the legwork that provides the opportunity for Company A and B.

How can a single company manufacturing widgets in Calgary hope to exert real influence in this sort of world? Well, it can't. Or to put it another way, it can't do it individually, but it can create a voice if it acts through or forms an industry association. Effective companies have known this for years and have acted on the local level to define and act on issues of shared interest through groups like the Calgary Motor Dealers Association and the Canadian Home Builders Association -- Calgary Region for dealing with local matters. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers is better equipped than government to deal with certain issues that impact the Calgary economy than is government.

A vibrant industry association is a vital component to a healthy economic sector. Another function of trade associations is to build social capital.

Often these associations assist in the development of the skills necessary for individual social capital capacity. They also assist by organizing events and opportunities that allow members to interact with customers, partners or competitors that individuals are unlikely to know or meet otherwise.

It is important that citizens vote and are engaged in the political processes if our democracy is to be sustained. But there are other things that also need to occur.

Civil society institutions need to be vibrant and active and also retain the engagement of their constituencies.

This is necessary both to sustain the public conversation and to carry on what they can do best.

Joining and being involved in such an association is as much an act of citizenship as voting.

Our democracy would be strengthened if more of us did both.

Linked to Cardus' research project.

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