There was something different in the air this time. The room still screamed of bureaucracy: the decorative flags at the front of the room, the plain suits, the stenographers. But the July CRTC hearing on traffic management (a.k.a net neutrality) had a dynamism to it that seemed foreign to the walls that contained it. Normally a hearing like this would be reserved for so called "stakeholders." This time around there was a buzz in the room, and that buzz was literally the twitter of public discussion that forced its way into a hearing.
The CRTC's traffic management hearing attracted an exceptional 11,000 submissions from people across Canada, an important number that I stressed in my own presentation before the commission. However, the public comments represent only a small facet of a larger constellation of citizen engagement that collectively appears to be opening up the CRTC's processes.
Prying open bureaucracy
Usually at hearings, citizen groups present their positions, send out a press release, and hope that the media relay the public-interest perspective. Even when the media does cover the public-interest perspective, citizens are brought into the discussion as onlookers to a representative-based discussion rather than as equal participants.
At this particular hearing, citizens made it very clear that they were not just going to sit passively but that they were going to actively participate in the discussions via social media tools. Net neutrality advocates like legal scholar Michael Geist, and citizen groups like the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) "live tweeted" and blogged about the hearing, while hundreds of people from across the country tuned in, discussed, and debated as the hearing unfolded over the course of a week.
There was such a strong awareness of cyber participation that before Michael Hennessy, Telus senior vice president or regulatory and government affairs started his presentation, he gave a shout out to everyone on Twitter. Later in the hearing, Michael Geist invited citizens to post questions that they thought the commission should ask Bell Canada -- it appeared that at least one of the commissioners was following online and utilized citizen input when dealing with representatives from Bell.
The division between government and citizens is breaking down. There is a movement for openness taking shape in Canada and elsewhere, where people are re-imagining government and citizenship with a renewed relationship among the two. That new relationship is characterized by government decision-making that is, as public policy consultant David Eaves puts it, "as flat and transparent as possible that both nourishes and draws from its most valuable resource: its citizens."
An example of how this movement is expressing itself can be seen by the city of Vancouver's recent enactment of an "Open Motion". The city is now committed to bringing the community into city hall by embracing transparency, engaging citizens, and soliciting their ideas, input and creative energy. Local governments in other places like Toronto and Calgary are pursuing similar policies.
Back to the CRTC hearing: What does all this amount to? The public was invited into the hearing in the usual tokenistic fashion. However, this time citizens took it upon themselves to bring the hearing out to the public.
People are no longer satisfied with "public consultations" that are not truly engaging. Canadians have an appetite for more -- for government institutions and their processes to be fully citizen-based. Albeit slowly, the CRTC seems to be evolving with public pressure, which should make for better decision-making.
This is only the beginning
It's clear that Canadians are tired of decisions being made in their name but that don't reflect their interests. We're not waiting for the government to figure this out. Expect government agencies and institutions to be confronted with these circumstances repeatedly in the future, provided we have an open communications system that we can use to self-organize. An open Internet and wider communications infrastructure is an essential ingredient that enables this evolution in citizenship and government relations. It is appropriate then that the first wall to break down be the one between our communications regulator and the citizens for whom it is supposed to operate.
It's encouraging that the CRTC has taken steps to make way for citizen participation such as setting up an open online consultation leading up to the hearings, but more needs to be done. It should be the citizens that define the questions that frame these hearings and online consultations. As such, the CRTC and policy makers must make stronger efforts to come out to, rather than pull in, citizens -- go where the conversations are happening.
Government captured by citizens
In one of the CRTC's first statements after assuming authority for telecommunications in 1976, the commission said: "The principle of 'just and reasonable' rates is neither narrow nor a static concept... the commission views this principle in the widest possible terms, and considers itself obliged to continually review the level and structure of carrier rates to ensure that telecommunications services are fully responsive to the public interest."
Bell, of course, tried to dodge CRTC oversight by arguing that these areas were not within the purview of the CRTC. The CRTC forcefully disagreed.
I hope the commission will embrace this watchdog spirit again. While some have questioned how much the revolving door between commissioners and industry, the undemocratic appointment process, and political pressure affect the CRTC's decisions, opening the CRTC to citizen involvement may be the best disinfectant for such impurities. The most reliable way to stop a regulator from being captured by industry is by citizens making sure it's captured by them.