Harnessing the wisdom of crowds
26 September 2019 at 8:39 am
Democracy is not a monologue, it has to be a conversation among many, says one of Canada’s leading experts on civic engagement.
But at a time when trust is in freefall, governments are seen as out of touch, and major global bodies are not working as intended, she argued it was essential to gather a diverse range of views – and she looked to philanthropy as a vehicle to enable the competition of ideas.
“I think some people in government believe it is their job to lay out where our country needs to go and the path to get there. That’s not how it really works,” Palvetzian said.
She stressed that the potential that comes from the wisdom of crowds was “exceptional”.
“The humility that is involved in saying ‘I need your help on this’, or ‘I’d like to work with you on this’, or ‘you have insights that we could use on this’, that’s a very difficult personality trait for some leaders. But that is the holy grail of collective impact,” she said.
Palvetzian, who was recently named one of Canada’s 100 Most Powerful Women, said when you looked at the “absurdly big” problems the world is facing in the 21st century, such as climate change and poverty, it was unrealistic to expect governments to be able to fix these problems alone.
“When our democracies were created there were but a handful of players creating them. And oh by the way, they all largely looked the same and came from the same backgrounds and went to the same schools,” she said.
The problems of today go beyond the scope of what those constituting frameworks were grappling with.
“It’s like trying to put skinny jeans on a bear,” she said. “It doesn’t fit.”
She argued we need to collectively push the envelope to bring more people into the tent.
“Because nobody thinks that government has all the answers. The problem is, the democratic structures that we have make it very difficult to crowdsource change on a daily basis,” Palvetzian said.
She told Pro Bono News that increasingly, people were not seeing themselves represented in the grass tops, with the people who have influence, power or wealth.
“How can we deal with that? Through the ability to engage, to have conversations directly with people with lived experience, to get out of the ivory towers and into the front lines of community. To sit down and talk to people,” she said.
“If you’re interested in funding work on women’s issues, how many women who have battled through the world of domestic abuse have you spent time with? Hearing from them about what’s useful or what’s needed. Not just reading the policy papers or seeing the data that’s produced in the think tank. That’s the difference.”
Palvetzian, who was in Australia as a guest of Philanthropy Australia, described the current relationship between government and philanthropy as two sectors that co-exist but do not co-partner in a sophisticated manner.
She said democracy could use some scaffolding that the philanthropic sector was uniquely positioned to support – acting as a plank that could bring people together.
“We have in our sophisticated modern societies, these groups that at times are quite siloed. Government does its thing. Labor does its thing. Academia does its thing. The community serving organisations do their thing. Business does its thing,” she told Pro Bono News.
“But who and what is able to engage all of them in a neutral sense, on issues that matter? Who can find common ground? I think the philanthropic sector is very well situated to help find and support that common ground and then to, in effect, plank people to walk over.
“There are very few sectors apart from the philanthropic one that have that purview. And so I think it’s a huge opportunity.”
She said philanthropy, in being untethered, was one of the few sectors that could truly be a “neutral sandbox”.
“You can convene people and they’re going to come because you aren’t hanging a stick or waving something hurtful toward them. You can be neutral and increasingly in democracy, what we are desperate for is that neutrality,” she said.
Her advice was to build a neutral sandbox and line it with the most interesting people you can find – the usual and unusual suspects.
“So a bank CEO is going to be sitting next to an anti-poverty advocate who’s going to be sitting next to a community college kid, next to a leader of a faith organisation,” she said.
“The wisdom of crowds produces better answers.”
Throughout her career, Palvetzian has advocated for new voices at the tables of influence including championing the next generation of leaders in her roles with the Ontario Public Service, the University of Toronto, and Presidential Classroom in Washington, DC.
She said at CivicAction they worked to “build a cavalry of players from all sectors” to do something about big urban issues in their area.
Talking about the model they use, “The Four Rs”, she explained they start with “research”.
“I’d like to say data is our seatbelt. It helps to neutralise the naysayers. It gets you right to action faster because you aren’t debating the merits of the problem,” she said.
The next step is to “reload”. At CivicAction they pick a new issue every four years, which Palvetzian said keeps them relevant and forces them the discipline of action.
Third, is to put a fence around the issue, “refine”, and understand the segment you are going to focus on.
“People can’t go along for the journey when you talk in a 30,000 foot conversation,” Palvetzian said.
“Bring it to the point where people can grasp it and then you have their attention.”
The last part, it to “reinforce”.
“If you’re doing it alone, you’re doing it wrong. Bring in the cavalry. But bring in the diverse figures as part of that cavalry,” she said.
She embraced corporates wanting to enter the social space, with the words “halle-fricken-lujah”.
She described it as the new norm.
“It is not icing, it’s the new cake,” she said.
She admitted philanthropy itself was not a diverse sector, and said it was important to compensate for that.
“I’m in awe of the people that use their privilege to invest in a series of voices and views that they may not even themselves personally fully share. But it broadens the group of voices that gets to be heard,” she said.
She finished on a powerful call to action for the philanthropy sector to be “pioneers”, saying the need for leadership has never been greater, the opportunities for philanthropy are limitless, and none of us have the privilege of inaction.
“It’s never been more important and you have a unique opportunity because of where you sit,” she said.
“No one else has the advantages that you have. And so the obligations I think sit on your shoulders.
“I hope you use that to bust through apathy and move to action every time.”