As the warm air subsides and the seasons shift, the Ascentum team is also feeling some major changes in the atmosphere. It has recently been announced that Ascentum’s Director, Mary Pat Mackinnon, will be promoted to Partner at Ascentum! In her position as Director, Mary Pat has led public and stakeholder engagement initiatives and is integral to the strategic planning work Ascentum does for its clients. She has extensive background in government affairs, public policy research and community engagement practice. As Partner, Mary Pat will not only fulfill her duties as a skilled designer, facilitator and writer, but will also manage Ascentum’s human resources file. Given her approachable nature, it’s agreed that Mary Pat is perfectly suited for her new duties.
To mark this promotion, I thought it might be a good time for reflection. I got a chance to sit down with Mary Pat and ask her a few questions about her new position, her ambitions, and her perspective on the world of public engagement.
What do you hope to accomplish this year in your new position with Ascentum’s clients?
There are three areas I would like to focus on in the year ahead. I want to grow our portfolio of health and labour force related policy engagement work, while also target outreach to public and not-for-profit clients in policy fields that we’ve done less work in, but in which we have much to offer. These could include topics like demographic challenges of aging workforce, citizenship, newcomers’ integration, education and the environment. I think our engagement expertise and products really make a difference because we deliver integrated design, facilitation, analysis and reporting grounded in informed participation approaches that give our clients a return on their investment. Secondly, I’d like to explore opportunities for work in the international arena, building on my past experience and projects – I think it’s an area that holds some real potential. Thirdly, I’d like to think about innovative ways to integrate and scale up our online, social media and in-person engagement processes, drawing on the unique contributions of these three streams.
Why do you think public engagement is important?
I would break it down to three main reasons.
- To revitalize democracy, which for me, means greater political accountability, greater legitimacy of public policies, all of which ultimately, strengthens citizenship.
- To improve our quality of life. I think that public engagement should both define and sustain what I would call the public good. I mean, it’s the public that should get to decide what kind of society we want. To have sustainable policies, the public needs to play an important role in defining and sustaining them (beyond voting every four years, important at that is).
- From a practical perspective, we need better public policies. This means we need more than technical expertise and top down decision making. So many ‘wicked’ problems are complex and involve a myriad of issues, involving critical value-based choices. Good public policy needs to incorporate various streams of evidence, including very importantly public policy preferences.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the potential for civic engagement in today’s world?
I think there are several interconnected barriers. Too many decision makers fear losing power and control. There is an inherent reluctance to share power, and reluctance to engage the public in agenda setting. If you don’t give up a bit of power, it’s hard to have authentic engagement. Also election cycles and just in time policy making doesn’t allow for more innovative ways of engaging the public.
And it is also true that many people and decision-makers simply are not aware of what good public engagement looks like or how it can help address problems. Another barrier is the level of distrust and cynicism about government and the public sphere. People wonder “What difference will my contribution make?” Decision-makers conclude “People don’t care – look at the ballot box turnout.” I think people do care, they just need to be reassured that they have the opportunity to contribute. An even more serious problem is apathy. Apathetic citizens are a much bigger problem than cynics because they don’t care that they don’t care.
Which aspect of this work keeps you motivated?
For one, its people. The public – Call me naïve –but all the dialogues I have been involved with tell me that most Canadians, at their core, are reasonable, fair and caring. I really believe that there is a latent public desire to contribute more to community life. I don’t know if I am a pragmatic idealist or an idealistic pragmatist, but personally for me, it’s important to feel like I’m making a positive contribution to Canada. Being part of Ascentum’s team allows me to do that. Secondly, I love learning. The field of public engagement is more of an art than a science. I also find that working with my younger Ascentum colleagues really keeps me au courant!
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in your experiences?
The most important thing I have learned is that process is as important as content. I have come to believe that achieving the scale of changes we need for more innovative, empathetic and productive communities, knowledge is necessary, but not sufficient. We need to engage our values, our hearts and our heads to make a better community.
What are main issues with regard to civic engagement and citizen involvement at the various levels of government in Canada?
I think the main issues are commitment and resources. If governments could view the public as a source of imagination and innovation, rather than seeing them as a stumbling block and hurdle, we would see the scale and scope of public engagement swell. Conversely, the same is true for the public – government is not the enemy – it is us! And we need to take responsibility to make it as good as it can be, acknowledging that we are imperfect beings in an imperfect but precious world. As Tony Judt puts it in Ill Fares the Land, “if we feel excluded from the management of our collective affairs, we shall not bother to speak up about them. In that case, we should not be surprised to discover that no one is listening to us.” (132, 2011)
What do you see for the future of public engagement?
I don’t have a crystal ball and am long in the tooth to be confident in predicting the future. So often we are wrong. But I think if you look at the trends over the past decades, it is unlikely that governments, not-for-profits and private sector organizations can ignore the impetus for citizens, stakeholders/shareholders, customers and employees to demand greater control of their private and public lives.
Do you think advancements in technology and social media have impacted this push?
I do. Four decades ago, even a decade ago, we had engagement, but we didn’t have the potency and immediacy of social media. It can be a very strong tool for positive change. But it’s not so much the tool itself; it’s how we use it. I think Ascentum uses those tools in a responsible way.
How do you think new technologies and online engagement are affecting in-person engagement at events? Have you noticed a change in human interactions since this technological era?
Well I think human nature doesn’t change, but the ways in which people learn, process and interact definitely is reshaping the social sphere. Technology is way ahead of us and we need to learn how to use it effectively and responsibly. I think we’re still learning, and it’s very exciting and challenging and intellectually stimulating….. So coming back to the future of engagement, I think we have a bigger toolbox to engage far more breadth. The challenge is how do we get depth? The future is not going to be linear. We will have to be more vigilant against simplistic populism, where leaders and people are rushing to simplistic answers to complex problems. The world is not simple; shortcuts, while seductive, can also be dangerous. We need to figure out how to manage the ‘distraction’ reality and cultivate more mindful reflection of what really matters- and to do this online and in-person.
– Holly Clark –