Dissatisfaction, Disengagement & Disillusionment?

With each passing year, I hear more and more people expressing their dissatisfaction, disengagement and disillusionment with government. The effects of this are clear; voter turnout has been on a downward trend for twenty plus years.

The reasons given for this decline are often attributed to a public that is uninterested, apathetic or just plain ignorant of the political system. Is this really true, or could there be other reasons that better explain this recent trend?

At the municipal level and, as a newly-elected Councillor, I noticed something very odd at every informational meeting the City hosted – regardless of topics – only a handful of people attended. Often, the staff outnumbered the public. I soon concluded that something was very wrong with this picture!

As I began to ask the ‘why’ questions during interactions with the public, I heard some common themes emerge;

  1. Frustration: The voters don’t believe their voices are being heard
  2. Their opinions don’t matter: Unless you are someone of means and influence
  3. Lack of transparency: There is dissatisfaction with the number of in-camera meetings and a perception that decisions are already made prior to the public consultation process
  4. Perceived gap between the ideals of democracy and the reality of what they see and experience
  5. Disillusionment with public institutions: in general
  6. Disengagement from the political process: A direct result of negative interactions with some public servants and/or elected officials.

Could it be that disengagement from the public process is a learned response as opposed to “the public doesn’t care”, which is often the explanation I hear from those in government? If it is a learned response, what can or should elected officials do to address this?

The solution may actually be quite simple. The public wants: to know that someone cares about their particular problem/issue; their elected politicians to keep their promises; and to come away from the process feeling as though their views were heard and duly considered. Most importantly, they want the final decision to be in the best interests of the community as a whole, instead of a ‘select’ few and/or the special interest groups.

In my view, we are fast approaching a crisis point in governance. Instead of government “by, for and of the people,” conducted in open legislative sessions, as opposed to in-camera (Closed) meetings, we have elected officials focused more on serving a narrow segment of our society rather than making principled decisions for the greater public good. Too often, our public institutions are not providing inspired leadership or effective government suited for the times we live in.

If elected officials don’t acknowledge and address this, thereby creating a more transparent, open and accountable government, we can expect further public disengagement. The Occupy Wall Street (OWS), movement in all its varied forms may be just a fore-shadow of what is yet to come.