Can you tell us a little bit about where you work in the nonprofit sector?
Let me take 30 seconds to explain the Samara Centre for Democracy. We are a national charity in Canada that is dedicated to strengthening Canada’s democracy, making it more accessible, responsive, and inclusive. We are known for our action-based, original research, resources and tools that are designed for active citizens and public leaders. We’ve been around since 2009. While our national mandate is ambitious, we are a lean team of 7-8 people with a main base of operations out of Toronto and Ottawa. As an aside, our co-founders Michael MacMillan and Alison Loat received the PAAC Award in 2014!
When I first started working at the Samara Centre in 2011, I found that Canadians were sometimes skeptical of why Canada would need Samara’s mission–Canada’s democracy was pretty good vis-a-vis the rest of the world and that didn’t seem likely change anytime soon. Fast forward to 2018, and people now recognize that democracies, even in places like Canada, are often more vulnerable than first thought. Terms like “populism” and “polarization” have become a part of the daily political vocabulary.
How do you think about public affairs in your role as Executive Director of the Samara Centre for Democracy?
To be honest, I’ve never really thought of myself as a “public affairs” professional! Yet my many public-facing responsibilities suggest that I am–but nor am I alone at the Samara Centre. I like to say that every team member has a ‘public affairs’ element to their roles. That’s because, in my view, a lot of successful public affairs is about relationship-building and relationship management. One person can only successfully manage so many relationships. Plus, platforms like social media are important relationship-building tools today. So with each team, be it research, programming or communications, there’s a powerful public affairs “multiplier effect” when everyone is thinking in terms of how they can advance the Samara Centre’s reputation and relationships–even when their job title is formally tied to public affairs.
Perhaps one of the interesting challenges is maintaining a strong nonpartisan reputation even as much of our activity touches highly political spaces and people–MPs, Parliament, parties and elections. The fun opportunity and challenge with the Samara Centre is to have good allies and friends of all partisan stripes to share insights and advice. As well, to hear from different vantage points within the “democracy ecosystem”– in addition to public office holders, I like to touch base with the nonpartisan public servants who serve the Legislature, academics who study politics, pollsters and lobbyists and other Executive Directors form civil society. Together, they help provide a pulse on Canada’s democratic health, and where windows for influence might lie.
Speaking of Canada’s democratic health, how can the practice of public affairs have a role in helping or harming Canada’s democratic health?
As many studies, including the Edelman Trust Barometer, remind us: there’s not a lot of trust that’s automatically placed in the figures of authority anymore. Trust, instead, flows far more easily to those already in one’s social network–the “real” people we already know. This creates a particular challenge for democracy, which depends on a certain amount of trust in strangers to work well. But as trust has declined, many people lack the personal connection to “politics” or “democracy” that can help humanize the enterprise, and make it more understandable, accessible and relevant. Unfortunately, Canada’s democracy doesn’t get to employ a team of public affairs professionals to help out with this task.
But I think there are things all people in the world of public affairs can do. The first is exercising your influence within your circles, by sharing your knowledge of policy cycles, legislative processes and elections to help others connect to the democratic process (often in a nonpartisan way). I call this task “wayfinding.” The world we live in is information-saturated, and as I mentioned above, more and more people turn to their own social circle to help make sense of this.
I also strongly encourage public affairs professionals, such as those employed by firms, to contribute in a volunteer or pro bono capacity your skills and knowledge to civil society organizations. These may be charities that serve communities who are often underrepresented in politics, or non-profits like the Samara Centre who advance “upstream” changes to make democracy more inclusive and responsive. This can go a long way to making the public square a richer one, with more voices that are worthy of being heard.