Policies, Publics, and Protests

The Alberta government spent 3.5 million dollars investigating environmental groups protesting the oil sands. Gary Mason, writing in The Globe and Mail, Alberta edition, expects the report to be a dud despite it being a year late and a million dollars over budget. His article appears below.

On 31 October 2007, the Calgary Herald published my opinion that protests of public policy contribute to knowledge, democracy, and good policymaking. As Albertans await the report on #environmental NGO funding of protest activities, I dusted off the op-ed of good things that come from public protests. With slightly updated wording, I’m republishing it here as a blog post.

If the $3,500,000.00 report says pretty much what
I wrote fifteen years ago, for free
where do Alberta taxpayers go for a refund?

All over the world powerful policymakers deploy spies, police, and military to avoid or to control citizens whose viewpoints differ from official public policy. Political analysts believe that power lies in the ballot box. Perhaps traditional political power does but, as current events demonstrate, that is only one kind of power.

The stories of protest power have become familiar: government/State on one side, protesters on the other side, with uniformed troops inside the frame. Protest is depicted as tense, messy, and expensive.

In nature, of which humans are a part, everything is connected. Seeing patterns assists in understanding systems. From my dozens of years studying protests as systems, here are five interconnecting patterns:

Protests are an emergent property of a policy system.

1. Policies are an initial condition for a protest group to form. Their aim is to influence changes in the policy they believe may harm them or the planet. Unlike special interest groups and lobbyists, who seek long-term access to policymakers, protesters may not stay active beyond the end of their particular policy conflict.

People have different risk tolerances.

2. Each side brings forth experts’ reports, risk assessments, and information it claims is correct, and which discredits the other side’s reports, risk assessments, and information. Sincere belief about a policy’s risks spur people to action they see as participating in civic engagement to prevent policy mistakes. Policymakers are confronted with concerns about potential harm that they have not considered, think is a tolerable risk, or do not accept as possible. This translates into power struggles over risks that policy does or does not, can or cannot mitigate.

Protesters and policymakers ‘diss and dismiss’ each other.

3. Instead of addressing the interpretive differences about the policy’s risks, the sides demonize each other, mostly through social media. Policymakers see protesters as unelected, unrepresentative, and unaccountable malcontents whose protest is “counterproductive”, its claims “ridiculous”, its opinion “a minority”, and its analysis “irrelevant”. Protesters believe their cause is just, their analysis of the problem is correct, and that policymakers are in the pockets of industry or developers seeking short-term benefits that add burdens to the taxpayer and the planet. So, both carry on.

Each side encourages democratic public participation.

4. Policymakers prefer policy discussions within official public participation processes, such as town hall meetings, focus groups, opinion surveys, or open houses. They expect the public to attend, be orderly, listen to hired experts who manage technical information, and then give input for the policymakers to consider in decisions they alone have authority to make. Protesters characterize their actions as true democratic public participation. On occasion, more people in total attend a protest than go to the notably under-attended official public processes, making protest, they argue, more representative of public opinion.

Protest creates knowledge.

5. The controversy of protest keeps everyone learning about alternative policy interpretations, and potential risks. Like news media, policymakers follow the noise. Policies, and their attendant protests, become Trojan Horses for other agendas, such as who is acting democratically, who speaks for the majority, ethics of governing, and how tax dollars are used. It generates research to prove/discredit each other’s policy interpretations. Policymakers consider more options as a result. Decisions improve through diversity of opinion. Protest groups freely give, and policymakers can accept, alternative knowledge and perspectives as part of policy formulation. The alternative knowledge stays in the policy system long after the protest about the policy ends. Members of the public may be persuaded to change an opinion as a result of additional information.

Patterns reframe protest as a contribution to mutual learning participating in policymaking, rather than placing protest as a cost outside policymaking, or an attack on democratic institutions, or as group dysfunction. It is tempting to want to sort good guys from bad guys, and have the news media bring it to the comfort of our homes. However, maybe the option is to spot patterns that help understand protests with more depth than simply regarding protesters as rowdy people who represent no one, or government as a monolithic bureaucracy making policy that benefits the few.

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