Citizen Action Monitor

Charles Dobson wants to increase citizen involvement in finding solutions to the big problems we face

No 182, Posted by fw, May 29, 2011

“Experts know the overarching solution to all of the big problems we face. You can find it in the last 10 pages of any book on a large-scale problem such as climate change or sustainable cities or childcare or food security. In the last chapter every author echoes every other. The solution is more citizen engagement. So how do we increase citizen engagement? Good question, because at this point virtually every author just ends the book. Not even a hint about how to do citizen engagement. If this is the ultimate solution, a few suggestions would be helpful since the number of citizens regularly involved in public affairs is less than 10 per cent.” Charles Dobson, Citizen Engagement: The Overarching Solution,, May 27, 2011.

Charles Dobson

About the author: Charles Dobson is an Associate Professor in Design, and Critical and Cultural Studies at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design. He has a varied background in architecture, graphic design, exhibit design, and media advocacy. He created the Industrial Design program and the expanded Communications Design program at Emily Carr. He is the author of The Troublemaker’s Teaparty: A Manual for Effective Citizen Action, the best selling book on advocacy in Canada, and the online Citizen’s Handbook, which is used by many non-profits including Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen. His is also an instructor in SFU’s Program on Dialogue and Civic Engagement, and Director of Popular Education for the New City Institute. His principal area of interest is design methods, particularly the creation and use of general solutions.

What follows is my summary of Dobson’s key points in his article, which you can read in full by clicking on the title Citizen Engagement: The Overarching Solution.


Why, puzzles Dobson, do the many books and articles on our “big problems” sidestep offering specific solutions? Is it that we presume there is no clear way forward? Or do we find the sheer magnitude and complexity of the problems paralyzing? Or perhaps the silence around the overarching solution of citizen involvement serves a purpose? (Included in Dobson’s list of big problems: personal dissatisfaction with life defined by work, shopping and entertainment; ever-widening gap between rich and poor; unequal pay for work of equal value; threat of climate change; and parasitic bankers).

In answer to his own question, but without explaining precisely what he means, Dobson posits what I call an “inertial factor”:

“[The very] threat of change has blockaded citizen involvement and produced a resilient system of social and political institutions that appear to respond to demands for change without changing much at all. Together they make a ‘rubber room’ from which escape is difficult.”

Acknowledging that change is hard, Dobson offers a change process

If we really want to bring about change, Dobson says we must begin the process of moving forward by trying to figure out why change has been so difficult for us. But before we even set out on this path of discovery, he forewarns that escape from the rubber room will be difficult because the walls are invisible. Consequently, we don’t really feel like we’re trapped.

First, chart your own course through life

To “uncloak” the rubber room, Dobson suggests we act as if we are free to chart our own course through life, or, as others have phrased it, to act as if we are free to create a “self worth having”. And here are his getting started ideas:

“[L]et’s suppose we begin to ask some difficult questions. Let’s suppose we wonder about generally accepted definitions of a good life. Let’s suppose we begin reading books on genuine progress, the real value of time, the decline of happiness in market societies and the importance of social relationships to our overall sense of well-being. Let’s suppose, as a result, the rubber room slowly becomes uncloaked. . . . With the walls now visible, who would not begin to look for a way out?”

Second, examine the “popular assumptions that prevent significant change”

According to Dobson, the rubber room is —

“. . .made of popular assumptions that prevent significant change by shunting citizens to the sidelines. As bearers of these beliefs, we are the protectors of stability, even when it’s not in our own interest. There is a long list of stabilizing beliefs that are damaging, unhealthy, and/or at odds with what we know.”

And here is my table of Dobson’s catalog of unhealthy stabilizing beliefs, beliefs that protect the status quo and prevent us from contributing to significant social change efforts:

Unhealthy Stabilizing Beliefs

Healthy Alternative Beliefs

Our democracy has reached its “highest practical level” Our system is at best a “weak democracy”
Government should run things without the need for much citizen involvement Implicit belief that we need to increase citizen engagement in the democratic process
First past the post electoral system is fair Evidence from recent federal elections suggests present electoral system results in an unfair distribution of parliamentary seats
Citizen engagement in municipal affairs is okay as is Municipal governments largely ignore their responsibility to build citizen engagement
Community groups are incompetent and not worth funding Research shows that investing in grassroots is one of the best ways of spending money
Full-time employment is normal and virtuous, even though it makes civic engagement next to impossible. Full-time workers are just too tired and short of time to participate in public affairs
Taking part in civic processes is a waste of time More citizens would participate if the public hearing process weren’t so long, frustrating, and useless
Young people are the agents of social change Most young people are too distracted by school, sports, diverting entertainment, personal relationships, and career building to be meaningfully engaged in social change campaigns
Retired people are only good for looking after gardens and grandchildren Seniors have a wealth of experience, time to participate, and the skepticism of 60s counterculture
Social networking and online activism are the new models for citizen engagement Most “point and click” activists can’t be bothered spending the time to understand the consequences of taking various positions on an issue
We believe personal pursuits are more important than social networks Research points to the fact that people are happier and healthier when they participate regularly in social networks outside of work
The good life includes abundant leisure time, spent watching TV, playing video games and web surfing Entertainment devices are perfectly designed to erode social networks, and keep people disconnected and disengaged
Privacy is more important than community When people lead private lives, they do not share
City streets belong to cars Cars wreck the largest piece of public space in any city
We believe in looking out for Number One The best way to look out for Numero Uno is to look out for others
Paid professionals, NGOs and social agencies should address people problems Professionalization undermines the benefits of helping others, and pushes us further away from community, toward greater privacy and greater isolation.
The best way to launch a grassroots campaign is to create a standalone group that refuses to co-operate with anyone Small standalone activist groups tend to be hopelessly fragmented and utterly ineffective because they can’t marshall sufficient human and financial resources to achieve their goals

So, what’s the point of this list of beliefs that form the walls of the rubber room?

Anticipating the readers’ question, Dobson poses it himself: “What’s the use of waking up if all you see is how you are beaten down?”

The point, he says, is to . . . challenge the assumptions of the 10 per cent of the population who comprise the ‘attentive public’ ”

“This group is better educated and follows politics and public affairs, as opposed to the “general public” who don’t care about much beyond their immediate concerns. If those who make up the attentive public realize they have been conned by a system set up for stability at the expense of individual and societal well-being, we have a chance of making some big changes. If they believe it is time to reform North American society, they have the capacity . . . to engage the remaining 90 per cent of the general public.”

The question remains: How do we begin to increase citizen involvement?

Dobson closes with an invitation to stay tuned for part two of this discussion.

And I invite you to stay tuned to this blog for a follow-up post on Dobson’s valiant search for ways to increase citizen involvement in finding solutions to today’s big problems.

FAIR USE NOTICE: This blog, Citizen Action Monitor, may contain copyrighted material that may not have been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Such material, published without profit, is made available for educational purposes, to advance understanding of human rights, democracy, scientific, moral, ethical, and social justice issues. It is published in accordance with the provisions of the 2004 Supreme Court of Canada ruling and its six principle criteria for evaluating fair dealing

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This entry was posted on May 29, 2011 by in counterpower of one, grassroots planning, leadership, political action, social movements and tagged .
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