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Policing forum draws little input

May 29 2012

The online forum set up by the Justice Ministry that was supposed to let British Columbians weigh in on the future of policing has so far attracted feedback from just five people.

According to one communications expert, that highlights the dangers of "simulating democracy" in a filtered environment instead of letting people have their say at a public meeting.

The online forum lets elected officials off the hook from facing their critics and the media, said David Black, associate professor in Royal Roads University's School of Communication and Culture.

"A town hall where the stakeholders or politicians [are present] is one of the few places where people can actually address people in power or responsibility in an information-rich way."

The government came under fire for its "public engagement strategy" on the future of policing, which included stakeholder-only meetings closed to the public. The only chance for the public to provide input is by reading a summary of the stakeholder meetings on the B.C. Policing Plan blog and commenting during dialogue sessions.

On the B.C. Policing Plan blog, the "dialogue question" entitled "What makes you feel safe?" has received only three comments since it was opened May 23.

B.C. Justice Minister Shirley Bond admitted she was disappointed with the small number and said the government needs to better promote the website.

"They're not used to a new opportunity like that, so we hope to see the number of people participating increase," she said. "A lot of people aren't comfortable using that [online] approach.

"We're open to emails, people having their own sessions within their communities and sending in their information."

But Black said people sending in their own townhall notes or emails just doesn't cut it.

Democracy depends on personal investment, Black said: putting your hand up at a town hall meeting, speaking and expecting a response from an elected official or stakeholders.

"It is a system built on people, so if we remove people from the system, democracy disappears."

Black admits the typical town hall-style meeting is not perfect, often turning into a yelling match. He suggested breaking the group into smaller clusters so they can discuss ideas, which are then shared with the whole crowd.

Some digital forums are successful in engaging people who normally wouldn't come to a town hall or public meeting, Black said. But they should supplement public meetings, he said, not be a substitute for them.

Geoffrey Cowper, the lawyer charged with reviewing B.C.'s justice system, is using a blog to gather input from the public. That works, Black said, because it lets people attach a face to the individual charged with analyzing our legal system.

"You have a human being on the other side of the system," Black said. "In one case, with Cowper, it's working, and the other, largely not in terms of the policing plan."

The blog can be found at: blog.gov.bc.ca/bc policingplan

kderosa@timescolonist.com

rfshaw@timescolonist.com

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